American politics is more diverse, more nuanced and more interesting than most media and political elites choose to note. This country elects Libertarians and Greens and Socialists and independents, along with Democrats and Republicans. And 2014 could produce results that put independents in a pivotal position in the US Senate.
But not all independents are alike. And this reality could have critical consequences for debates over the future of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a whole lot more, consequences that ought to understood by everyone who is playing the Senate-control numbers game. To be sure, there are Republicans in the Senate—and running for it—who have indicated a willingness to mess with vital programs. But don’t assume that a Senate where independents hold the balance of power would necessarily preserve those programs. It could be more prone to the mangling proposals of the Simpson-Bowles commission.
There is good reason to be concerned that some independents, led by Maine Senator Angus King, could use their newfound authority in a closely divided Senate to promote the sort of “grand bargain” that has long threatened Social Security as we know it.
With the 2014 Senate competition hurdling toward November 4—when control of the chamber may or may not be decided, depending on potential runoffs in Georgia and Louisiana—the focus on independent candidacies has spiked. If Democrats and Republicans finish with even numbers of senators, even if a party has a one-seat advantage, a couple of ambitious independents could become definitional players.
As of now, one independent contender is polling well enough to be considered a serious prospect for election to the Senate, while another looks to be competitive in a wildly unsettled race. Kansas independent Greg Orman has been running even with Republican Senator Pat Roberts in a contest where the Democrat dropped out. And Republican South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler, who served as a Republican but backed President Obama twice, has retained credible numbers in a multi-candidate field for his old seat.
In Kansas, Orman has received a great deal of support from Democrats since their party’s candidate dropped out, and he is certainly more progressive than Roberts. Pressler, on the other hand, is trying to find his way around conservative Republican Mike Rounds and populist Democrat Rick Weiland.