Five of those Democrats are red-staters who discovered this year that “distancing” yourself from Barack Obama isn’t enough to win re-election in a year of extremely low turnout. The first is Mary Landrieu, on whose behalf this entire exercise was mounted, on the absurd theory that Louisiana voters will turn out in droves for her runoff in December once they learn how much she loves oil, a fact of which they were supposedly unaware before now. Then we have Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and John Walsh of Montana. The first three lost their seats, and Walsh would have been ousted by voters had he not resigned over a plagiarism scandal.
The next group of Democrats are also from red states: Heidi Heitkamp of South Dakota, John Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Through whatever combination of electoral fear and genuine conviction, these are among the senators who disagree with their colleagues most often. McCaskill is a particularly notable case; lately she has been moving to the right in visible ways, including proclaiming her opposition to Harry Reid remaining leader of the Democrats in the Senate and criticizing President Obama’s proposed actions on immigration. Rumor has it that she’s preparing to run for governor, which could help explain why.
The final group of Democrats who voted in favor of the pipeline may have each had their own reasons, but none could have imagined that voting against the pipeline would be a huge political liability. These were Michael Bennet of Colorado, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Tom Carper of Delaware.
So what does this tell us? To a great degree it suggests that Republicans are still succeeding in defining what it means to be a liberal, striking fear into the hearts of any Democrat who wants to win in a red state. Republicans haven’t actually spent too much time arguing the environmental concerns over Keystone, other than to dismiss them out of hand. Instead, they’ve touted the pipeline as a jobs boon that would boost the entire American economy, a claim no sane person believes.
But red-state Democrats still live their lives in a state of perpetual terror that someone might call them a liberal (the only red-state Democrats who voted No were Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, both of whom are retiring).
If these votes don’t change, when Republicans bring the pipeline up again in the new Congress, it will have enough votes to overcome a filibuster — but still fall short of the 67 that would be needed to override a presidential veto. And the Democrats who supported the pipeline will find that it really didn’t help them.
Their red state colleagues who lost their elections have already found out that high-profile breaks with their party don’t keep you politically safe. And indeed, those red-state losses have made the Democratic caucus in the Senate more liberal, and it’s possible that in 2016 the number of red state Democrats will decline even further (even if Democrats gain seats overall). So even if there is still the possibility of Dem divisions on some issues, the fracturing off of red state Dems could matter less and less over time, making the future of Democrats in Congress one of more, not less, unity.