18 October 2010

Some Congressional Cardinals are Endangered Political Animals

Membership has its privileges.  Usually after a politician survives his or her first re-election, it is easy street for a Congressman.  The incumbent will gather a huge campaign war chest by virtue of being a high profile politician and a proven winner.  The continued service in the halls of Congress often leads to seniority and chairmanships (or ranking member status) which garners support from interested public policy stakeholders.  If the incumbent’s party is in power on the state level during redistricting, the Congressman’s district can be gerrymandered so as to make it a safe seat.  Congress’ re-election rate is typically more than 90%.    If those advantages are not enough, if an incumbent sees that it will be a rough race he or she can retire and not face the tough opposition.

That is why this midterm election is so fascinating.  The winds of change have been blowing since before the primaries, which motivated some endangered incumbents to want to “spend more time with their families”. Witness the case of  eight term Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI 1st), who faced angry constituents after eventually caving on his opposition to Obamacare.  It is a similar story for two term Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), although this may also be positioning for a challenge to President Obama in the 2012 Democrat primaries.  Tired from his 16 terms of service, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI 7th) chose to retire rather than face a tough general election campaign.

That is why this mid-term election is so fascinating as some Cardinals of the Congress are endangered species in the fall.  Rep. John Dingell (D-MI 15th) has been in Congress since 1955 (!) and had been considered one of the five most powerful Members of Congress is in trouble. Republican challenger Dr. Rob Steele is an Ann Arbor heart surgeon who is so concerned about bad health care legislation that he decided to run for office.  According to a recent Detroit Free Press poll shows that Steel, a political novice,  has a slight lead over the 27 term incumbent Dingell.

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN 8th), an 18 term incumbent and Transportation Committee Chairman, is having a real general election challenge from Republican Chip Cravaack.  An internal GOP poll at the beginning of October showed challenger Cravaack trailing Oberstar by 3 points.  Granted, such commissioned polls can be skewed to buck up a candidate or to make news.  But it is significant that such an established incumbent is polling below 50% in a District that the Cook Report claims is only D+3.  It is revealing that Cravaack is leading Oberstar 3 to 1 on fundraising within the 8th Congressional district.  Oberstar only received one contribution over $200 in the last quarter from within the district.  This suggests questionable enthusiasm within the district which might depress Get Out The Vote efforts on election day.

Even the powerful Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee  Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA 4th) is not safe.  The nine term Congressman is facing a challenge from a 35 year old Marine Corps veteran Sean Bielat, who is within striking distance in the polls.  It must be a serious challenge if Frank’s boyfriend, James Ready, felt compelled to heckle Bielat during a press availability.

 We will soon see, but I suspect that Congressional re-election rate of over 90% is going down in this change election, and some of the casualties will be surprising.

No comments: