CPP Magazine

Expert Q&A

Are Two Centrist Senators Really So Powerful?

Neil ChatuverdiAhead of the 2022 elections, the Biden administration and Democrats are working hard to advance major agenda items. Neilan Chaturvedi, associate professor of political science and author of “Life in the Middle: Marginalized Moderate Senators in the Era of Polarization,” explains power dynamics in the U.S. Senate, the influence of centrist Senators and whether the filibuster might become history.

What is the role of centrists?
The story is really polarization. Centrists give you the votes you need to get things done, but they are not powerbrokers. Some Democrats say, “I wish we could get rid of Joe Manchin.” Okay, well you’re going to lose the Senate forever. You need people like Manchin to get things done, unless you restructure the Senate.
Republicans needed Susan Collins, for example, to get Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court. You may not particularly like that Collins is on your team, that someone is shooting 40 percent of the time for the other team, but you need them because they are the best you can get. Republicans wouldn’t trade that for a Democrat.

Are Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema the center of power?
No. If they were to vote against major party legislation, that’s basically handing their party a significant blow. It brings the party brand down and hits them pretty hard, too. That doesn’t give them much power.

Where centrists do vote against the party, it’s specifically in votes that are inconsequential. This doesn’t make them powerful as much as it makes them scared of their mixed constituencies.

Ahead of Collins’ vote in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, people were saying she might vote no. But her vote was necessary to get him on the court. She voted yes, because it would have been such a huge blow to Trump and the party to vote otherwise. That’s just how moderates operate.

Why aren’t there more moderate Senators?
There aren’t any truly moderate states. There are states that are moderate in the aggregate. For example, Maine has that rural constituency that’s very, very conservative and a more liberal northeast region that is amenable to liberal policies. To represent them, if you stay right in the middle, you’re going to piss off most of the voters every time. So, Collins has to straddle both sides instead of representing the middle.

Manchin is a Democrat representing deep red West Virginia. It’s kind of impossible to do, but he does a pretty good job of it. He has to straddle that line and demonstrate the independence to represent West Virginia and not the Democratic party. 

None of those are really positions of power.

Any predictions for 2022?
If Republicans win the Senate, it would be by a small margin. Then the situation becomes flipped. Instead of Manchin and Sinema being the deciding votes, it’s Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, mainly Collins because Maine is more moderate than Murkowski’s more independent and conservative Alaska. If Republicans take control, Collins will be the one looking like Manchin, protecting the filibuster because she doesn’t want any extra pressure on herself.