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, senators were elected by state legislatures. 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, entitled “Treason of the Senate.”
The series helped to 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, thanks to public passions, the saucer has been 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 more than twice as many seats (23, including two held by independents who caucus with them) as Republicans (10). The bulk of those are in Republican ruby-red Southern, Midwestern and Mountain states.
Gallup’s latest analysis of party affiliation shows a marked drop in solid-Democrat states, from 30 in 2008 to 14 in 2010. The number of 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 Bauer.
Gallup’s poll, along with its state-by-state job-approval rating of President Obama, give a snapshot of potential 2012 election scenarios. They are particularly interesting in the battleground states of Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.
Brauer thinks the trends “have to be worrisome to Obama and his reelection prospects.”
“Success in these three states is vital to a second term,” he said. “However, each showed noteworthy drops in Democratic identification from 2008 to 2010” – in Ohio by 7.8 percent, Indiana by 6.9, Pennsylvania by 6.5.
And each showed a dive in Obama’s job-approval rating from 2009 to 2010 – in Ohio by 7.9 percent, Indiana by 11.4, Pennsylvania by 11.1. All three give Obama an approval rating below 48 percent and a disapproval rating 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.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who has been left of the president, most likely will face serious re-election trouble. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who has been supportive of many administration policies, most likely will face a tough primary challenge from the right.
It could translate into a tougher-than-expected re-election bid for Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat with a close friendship to and strong legislative support 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 a hundred 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 by campaigning on the slogan “Had Enough?” That majority lasted only two years.
Philips, by the way, was fatally shot outside New York's Princeton Club two years before the 17th Amendment passed, by a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra violinist unhappy with a number of his other writings.