Monday, September 23, 2013

US Senate Elections 2014- Part I

It is fourteen months until the 2014 midterm elections. Most of the primaries have already crystallized, and in many races SuperPACs and other groups have begun spending money. So, without further ado, here are the 34 senate races that we will be looking at. Font size corresponds to relative importance. An important thing to realize is that the last time these seats were last up was in 2008, when a democratic wave swept the nation and led to a Democratic supermajority in the senate. So Democrats will mostly be playing defense next year.

The overarching theme of the election will probably be Democrats in vulnerable states such as Montana, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska asserting independence from the White House and from congressional Democratic leaders. Crossover voting will be essential for these “Red-state Democrats” to win. As such, they will be attempting to localize the races, make them about local issues that voters would be more comfortable entrusting to a Democrat. By contrast, Republicans will attempt full nationalization.

The second overarching theme will be the struggle between Establishment Republicans and Republicans whose base of support is the Tea Party. While both factions are very conservative, the Establishment wing tends to support compromise with the Democrats and President Obama. By contrast, tea partiers pursue a hard line approach. An example of an Establishment Republican would be Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, while a Tea Partier would be Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Democrats are most likely to lose between 2 and 4 seats. In order to keep control of the senate they must limit their losses to 5 seats or less.

Alabama Alaska Arkansas Colorado Delaware Georgia Hawaii Idaho Illinois Iowa Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maine Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota Mississippi Montana Nebraska New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico North Carolina Oklahoma Oregon South Carolina South Carolina (Seat 2) South Dakota Tennessee Texas Virginia West Virginia Wyoming

I guess I’ll start with half the competitive races and finish some other time. So here goes:

Alaska- This was a classic 2008 wave pickup for the democrats. Mark Begich unseated incumbent Ted Stevens after Ted Stevens was indicted on corruption charges. Most likely Begich will be facing Anchorage mayor Mead Treadwell. From what I’ve seen, Treadwell is basically your standard GOP politician; he’s not the type to make a career-ending gaffe. Then again, that may not be so much of an advantage in the primary.

There are a couple other people running in the primary; chief among them Joe Miller, the guy so extreme he lost to a write-in candidate named MURKOWSKI. He probably has no chance of winning the primary, so we will probably be looking at a Begich-Treadwell match in the general election.

Alaska has a very strong libertarian streak, consistent with much of the west. Alaskans are for the most part tolerant of same-sex marriage, so it makes sense that both Begich and Murkowski came out in favor of same-sex marriage legalization earlier this year. However, they tend to be quite conservative on energy and economic issues. Begich is overall moderate to conservative on these issues, so he is overall a pretty good fit for the state. Alaska also tends to have a strong incumbency bias.

Optimistic Democratic scenario: Begich rides on his moderate stances and incumbency and comfortably beats Treadwell in the general.

Likely scenario: Begich has some trouble winning in a fairly red state. It’s a toss-up to the end, with a slight advantage to Begich based on incumbency.

Optimistic Republican scenario: Begich’s moderate credentials fail to win over enough republicans. He loses narrowly to Treadwell, perhaps by two to three percent.

Arkansas- Arkansas is currently home to one of my least favorite Democratic senators- Mark Pryor. He is very wishy-washy on the issues, and acts like a moderate hero on many votes. On top of which, he cannot articulate his views well, so he ends up angering both Democrats and Republicans. However, Arkansas is still willing to elect conservative Democrats, and Pryor has a lot of good will from his father, former governor David Pryor.

Pryor has drawn a fairly strong opponent in Representative Tom Cotton. Cotton seems able to unite both the establishment and tea party Republicans behind him. However, on many issues he seems hardline, and he has a checkered past, including some comments perceived as sexist.

All indications point to this race being a tossup, and both sides will be spending heavily on their respective candidates. Cotton will attempt to tie Pryor to Obama, who is insanely unpopular in Arkansas, while Pryor will paint Cotton as extremist. A wild card will be whether former president Bill Clinton will heavily campaign for Pryor.

Optimistic Democrat scenario: Pryor consolidates Clinton democrat support, and Cotton is sidelined by a gaffe on a sensitive issue. Pryor wins by a moderate amount.

Likely scenario: Pryor will see some defections of Clinton Democrats to Cotton, and Cotton manages to keep his mouth out of the papers. Pure toss-up.

Optimistic Republican scenario: Anti-Obama fervor sweeps Pryor away. Toss-up/lean R, and a Republican pickup.

Georgia- Current two-term senator Saxby Chambliss is retiring, and a this seat represents a rare possibility of a pickup for the Democrats, with the loss of incumbency advantage for the Republicans. Currently the Democratic candidate looks like it will be Michelle Nunn, daughter of former senator Sam Nunn, a beloved former Georgia senator. The GOP field currently looks like a clown car, a colloquial term for a crowded primary where no one appears to have an advantage. Among the candidates are Representatives Paul Broun (famous for saying that evolution and the big bang theory were lies “straight from the pit of hell”) and Phil Gingrey (who claimed Missouri candidate Todd Akin was right when he said that the female body can shut itself down in the case of “legitimate rape”). Also in are Representative Jack Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, and Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

Just the specter of Broun or Gingrey winning the primary is a boon for Democrats, since polls show that they are very unpopular in Gwinnett County, a key suburb of Atlanta that has been trending Democratic. Unfortunately, Georgia is a deeply polarized state, and an anti-Obama atmosphere could cause either to win an election. If either Handel or Gingrey wins, the Republican will be favored.

Optimistic Democratic scenario: Nunn rides on her father’s popularity and suburban dislike of either a Broun or Gingrey candidacy, and wins a narrow victory.

Likely scenario: A Broun or Gingrey candidacy results in a competitive race, though the Republican base of support in rural Georgia boosts their support, resulting in a toss-up race.

Optimistic Republican scenario: Either Kingston or Handel wins the nomination, and the Republican base remains intact, resulting in a mid single-digit win for the Republican.

That’s it for now, I will cover Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, and Louisiana in about a week.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


So, Syria has been on my mind recently. What should we do, what should we not do. I'll try to make this brief.

Syria is probably the worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century. 100,000 Syrians have died, and 2 million Syrians (10% of the total population) have been displaced. This is because of a civil war that has been raging in Syria for the last 2 years. It all started when a vegetable merchant set himself on fire in Tunisia in 2011, and mass movements erupted throughout the middle east. Some countries such as Tunisia and Egypt transitioned relatively peacefully, while Libya endured a bloody civil war. However, while all the other nations already have elected governments, Syria continues in its civil war.

Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, which is a small sect of Islam, related to Iranian Shia. Problem is, Syria is 60% Sunni muslim. Now you might be asking why Syrians are killing each other just because they disagree on who should have taken the place of Mohammed as caliph 1400 years ago. And the answer: I don't know. But that's a discussion for another day.

Now, to bring in the actors. First off, the Alawite government. Bashar al-Assad is closely linked to governments in Russia, China, and Iran. Israel tolerates him because he keeps the border quiet and doesn't lob missiles every five seconds like Hamas does. For a while, the US tolerated him too.

The Free Syrian army (FSA) was organized by disaffected army officers, and led by Colonel Riad al-Assad (don't ask) and General Salim Idriss. They are nonsectarian, and have said they are pushing for democratic rule. There are currently about 70,000 FSA members fighting. For a while they have been receiving small arms training from the Americans.

The third group fighting is al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda. They are fighting for a strict islamist state, based on Sharia law. Wherever they have taken towns, they have performed forced conversions, and have led to a crackdown on non-Islamists. They are being covertly supported by Saudi Arabia. What is interesting is that many al-Nusra fighters (about 7,000 in all) are not from Syria, but belong to international al-Qaeda affiliated groups that have descended upon Syria in a veritable Jihad.

Finally, we have the Kurds, an ethnic minority who have long been agitating for an independent or autonomous state. Since entering the war, they have taken over control of many Northern towns near the Turkish border.

So, we have a wonderful little 4-way civil war. those always end up well (I’m looking at you Lebanon). And chemical weapons floating around to boot!

A chemical attack utilizing sarin gas occurred on August 21st, in a Damascus suburb that is also a rebel stronghold. Hard figures are difficult to come by for obvious reasons, but the death toll is estimated at 1400. Last year President Obama drew a “red line”, saying that if chemical weapons were used by the regime, the administration would intervene militarily.

Unfortunately, the measures President Obama has been pushing for will probably not curtail B. Assad’s ability to carry out chemical warfare. The president has been calling for a “limited and proportional” strike against the Syrian government, and any chemical reserves. However, most of Assad’s reserves are stored deep underground in concrete bunkers, probably beyond the range of American rockets. A strike in the sorts President Obama is proposing will not destroy these reserves.

In addition, we do not have conclusive proof that the attack was perpetrated by Assad forces. Recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the UN inspector team in the country found “strong circumstantial” evidence. But even if it is likely that Assad used weapons, it would not be a great idea to launch strikes into the region unless the international community has extremely strong evidence. After all, it has been confirmed that al-Nusra has been developing their own chemical weapons, and they are most certainly not above attacking their own people.

A bombshell broke in the international community this week also, with Syria now offering to sign the Geneva Convention outlawing chemical weapons. Currently, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the exact terms of a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis. The outcome is currently hopeful, but uncertain.

So now I’m going to switch from a general description of the Syrian conflict to my personal views on what should be done, as well as my hopes and expectations for a post-conflict Syria.

Assad must go. He is massively unpopular, and only holds onto power through brutal crackdown of resistance. That being said, how far should we go toward removing him?

Many opposed to an intervention assert that any action against Assad will strengthen al-Qaeda. That is not quite true: as in Lebanon thirty years ago, the situation is extremely complex. For instance, al-Nusra has not allied itself with any mainstream rebel groups. At least two high level FSA officials have been assassinated by al-Nusra operatives. Wherever Kurdish lands fall under control of al-Nusra, the Kurdish population is often persecuted and forced to leave to neighboring Turkey and Iraq.

Despite the religious zeal exhibited by many jihadist forces, I am doubtful of their ability to control post-conflict Syria. All jihadist/Mujahideen forces make up only 20% of the opposition, and al-Nusra is less than half of that total. In addition, most of their support is coming from outside Syria. Whether these militants remain in Syria or return when the conflict is over is uncertain. The fact that they have alienated both Kurdish forces and the FSA also indicates that their influence post-conflict will not be strong. By contrast, the FSA has done a pretty good job of uniting all of Syria, with various commanders hailing from all regions, and from secularists to fundamentalists-but-not-crazy Islamists.

I think that in order to shorten the war, we should either train or supply the FSA. Currently, they are at a disadvantage in weaponry to the Syrian government. Reports have been leaking in that FSA members have been deserting and joining Saudi-funded jihadist groups due to lack of weapons, Thus, strengthening the FSA would serve two roles: to weaken Assad and to slow the influx of manpower into al-Nusra and other groups.

A problem overlooked has been the Kurdish question. The Kurds have quietly taken control of the northern extremity of Syria. So, assuming the Assad regime falls (which is not a great assumption, but bear with me) what happens to the Kurds? If they are forced to remain within Syria, we will see continued fighting in Kurdish regions, even more so if the new government is anti-anyone who is not Arab. By contrast, if this part of Syria becomes independent (unlikely, but still a possibility) the stability of the northern middle east will reach negative values as Kurds in both Turkey and Iraq attempt independence and possible formation of a new Kurdistan. While not the 800 pound gorilla in the room (that would be the fact that al-Qaeda is fighting here) the Kurds are more like the 300 pound orangutan.

I’m not a big fan of Rand Paul. And when he opposed Syrian intervention because Christians would be persecuted by the new government, I initially brushed it off as just a “Paul moment”. But he really does have a point- if an al-Qaeda supported government takes over, then the 10% of syrians who are Christian will probably be forced to leave. Therefore, it is more important than ever to weaken the extremist groups. However, it would make little sense to stay motionless over the issue just because a certain faction of the opposition is certifiably insane. I think we should cautiously attempt to remove Assad and help elect a government representative of Syria as a whole (for those Rand Paul types out there, in general Syrians have not been happy that al-Qaeda has set up shop in the area).

About me and my political philosphy

My name is Samuel Bressler. I am seventeen years old and a current senior at Troy High School in Fullerton. I am a birdwatcher, as well as lover of science. For many years, I have been fascinated by politics and policy. I feel these are important because these, more than sports, fashion, and any other common interest, will be shaping my life, along with my classmate's lives as we prepare to go to college and beyond.

My political philosphy: stick to the facts and logic, forget the dogma. Too often political dogma consists of unrelated beliefs bolted together even though they are not at all related. For example, many people opposed to abortion call themselves pro-life, yet they also strongly support the death penalty. And just to be politically correct, many liberals call themselves the pro-science party and accuse conservatives of living in the middle ages because of issues such as evolution in classrooms and discussion of anthropogenic climate change. Yet same liberals are among the most extreme and partisan opponents to nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms, even if by doing so they are directly opposing some of the greatest fruit science has produced for us.

To be politically literate, a new way of thinking should be popularized- consistency. If you accuse your opponent on one issue but use the exact logic he uses on a different issue (as in the two cases above) you are being inconsistent. Will consistency requiring softening some firmly-held beliefs? Absolutely. Will political discourse be improved? Absolutely.

I also hate talking points that are thrown into the arena from both sides of the aisle. It is an insult to the American people that politicians hoodwink us by spewing inaccurate or just plain made-up facts or statistics in order to buy votes. We the people should let them know.

I am a utilitarian rather than a Kantian. Government should not be about absolutes. With rare exceptions people are not pro-environment or anti-environment, or pro-jobs or anti-jobs. Government should be about doing the greatest amount of good for the people, in this case, the American people. With very rare exceptions, neither liberal nor conservative dogma is utilitarian.

I hope you enjoy my blog!
Samuel Bressler
Pandion haliaetus- Osprey