WASHINGTON- The only sound visitors hear on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol on an early Sunday morning is the click of heels on the marble floor, echoing off the 20-foot ceiling.
Hard to imagine that, less than 100 years ago, the men serving here weren’t elected by voters.
"That is because the Framers did not want two chambers to be controlled by the
frenzy of popular opinion," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.
From 1789 to 1912, state legislatures elected U.S. senators. That changed in 1913 with ratification of the Constitution’s 17th Amendment.
The Senate joined the House in direct elections thanks to the Progressive Era and a series of articles in Cosmopolitan magazine by David Graham Philips, "Treason of the Senate." The series helped create public demand for direct elections, overcoming Senate resistance.
"The Progressives thought that the people would make the right choice in a Senate election," said Ritchie. In the next election, "all the incumbents who ran, won, and most of the Progressive candidates lost, taking the steam out of the Progressive movement."
According to legend, George Washington told Thomas Jefferson the Senate’s purpose was to "cool" House legislation, just as a saucer cools hot tea.
Yet in plenty of elections, public passions have kept the saucer as hot as the tea.
Look no further than the 2010 midterms, when Republicans regained Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
Next year, Democrats must defend 23 Senate seats, including two held by independents who caucus with them; Republicans, 10 — mostly in ruby-red Southern, Midwestern and Mountain states.
Gallup’s latest party affiliation analysis shows solid-Democrat states dropping from 30 in 2008 to 14 in 2010. Politically competitive states rose in the same period, from 10 to 18.
"The 2008 numbers were artificially high for the Democrats," said Keystone College professor Jeff Brauer. "That election was mistakenly seen as a Democratic mandate when it was more about President Bush fatigue."
Democrats acted on what they thought was an electoral mandate, and their support
quickly slipped away. "Hence the dramatic shift from 30 to 14 solid-Democratic
states," said Brauer.
Gallup’s poll and its state-by-state job-approval ratings of President Obama give a snapshot of potential 2012 scenarios. They are particularly interesting in battlegrounds Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Brauer thinks the trends "have to be worrisome to Obama and his re-election prospects.
"Success in these three states is vital to a second term. However, each showed
noteworthy drops in Democratic identification from 2008 to 2010" — 7.8 percent in Ohio, 6.9 in Indiana, 6.5 in Pennsylvania.
Each showed a dive in Obama’s job-approval rating from 2009 to 2010 — 7.9 percent in Ohio, 11.4 in Indiana, 11.1 in Pennsylvania. All three give Obama approval below 48 percent and disapproval above 45 percent.
"If these numbers do not change, they could create a drag on the incumbents who are allies to the president," said Brauer.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who has been left of the president, likely will face
serious trouble. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who has been supportive of many
administration policies, likely will face a tough primary challenge from the right.
Re-election could be tougher than expected for Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey, a
Democrat who’s a close friend and strong legislative supporter of Obama.
"There have been some major electoral swings when voters became angry or fearful
over the direction the nation was going," said Ritchie. "In 1918, during World War I, Democrats lost the majority in both the House and Senate, and voters swung over to the Republicans in a big way during the Twenties."
Then the Depression hit, and Republicans lost almost 100 House seats in 1932.
By 1936, Democrats had more than two-thirds of the Senate and the House.
When World War II ended, Republicans swung back into the majority with the campaign slogan "Had Enough?" That majority lasted only two years.
Philips, by the way, was shot dead outside New York’s Princeton Club two years
before the 17th Amendment passed, by a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra violinist
unhappy with his writings.