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Posts in "Campaigns & Elections"
August 5, 2014
Richard M. Nixon’s fate was effectively sealed 40 years ago today. It’s a curious coincidence at the start of an August recess when the extraordinarily serious matter of presidential impeachment is going to be tossed around in such a cavalier and cynical manner.
In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like. But there is no doubt that’s what steadily swelled toward its climax on Aug. 5, 1974.
That Monday afternoon, Nixon made public transcripts of three conversations he’d had with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman just six days after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. The move ended parallel standoffs — between the president and Congress and between the president and federal prosecutors — that had festered for two weeks, even after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon could not claim executive privilege and had to fork over the records subpoenaed for the Watergate cover-up trial. The House Judiciary Committee had also been stiff-armed after issuing similar subpoenas on the way to approving its three articles of impeachment, with solid bipartisan support, in July.
Beyond breaking the separation-of-powers fever, the transcripts provided all the evidence necessary to bring Nixon’s presidency to a dramatically swift end. His words, preserved on what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, left no doubt he had personally launched a criminal conspiracy. The president had effectively ordered the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, agreeing that top CIA officials should be instructed to pressure the FBI to halt its investigation of the crime on cooked-up “national security” grounds.
Within hours, Nixon’s tenuous wall of congressional support crumbled. All 10 Republicans who had voted against impeachment in committee said they would vote on the floor for at least the article alleging obstruction of justice. (The other charges were abuse of presidential power and contempt of Congress.) Senior Republican senators were dispatched to inform the president he could not count on more than 15 votes for acquittal at a Senate trial. Nixon chose instead to resign, announcing that decision Thursday night and leaving office the morning of Friday, Aug. 9.
The anxiety of that sustained constitutional impasse — capped by a president who had proclaimed “I am not a crook” quitting after being forced to reveal he really was one — is seared in the memories of everyone on the Hill who lived through it. (The most recent reminder was the July 29 death, at age 89, of former Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who as a freshman on Judiciary conceded he broke down and wept after becoming among the first committee Republican to announce support for impeachment.)
But Watergate also was the formative national trauma for anyone who arrived in Congress from the 1970s through the 1990s, the generations who still hold sway over the national debate. For those politicians, regardless of ideology, Nixon’s forced resignation ranks with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the dates in their lives that most live in infamy.
The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.
In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing. Full story
July 22, 2014
If Rand Paul is taking this summer’s most prominent turn in the Republican spotlight, then the same must be said for his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren among the new generation of national Democratic players.
The two first-term senators are generating their surges in attention in different ways, probably because they have different timetables in mind for their presidential aspirations.
While Paul is overtly laying the groundwork for a virtually certain 2016 campaign with a series of bold fundraising, staffing and legislative moves totally disconnected from his home base in Kentucky, Warren has been taking another tack with a seemingly alternate objective. She, too, has been spending most of her not-in-session time politicking far from her home base of Massachusetts, but almost all her campaigning and cash collecting has been on behalf of others. Full story
July 16, 2014
It’s rare, but sometimes an advertisement in Roll Call says as much about the state of congressional political infighting as our coverage.
Such was the case Wednesday. Page 7 provided an exceptionally tart and juicy morsel of insight into the Republican civil war’s summertime state of play.
The sarcastically gleeful full-page ad was the handiwork of Main Street Advocacy, which exists to stick up for the establishment wing of the GOP in part by promoting the re-election of House and Senate incumbents. The butt of the ad was the Club for Growth, which seeks to defeat those same lawmakers whenever they stray from the strictest of party fiscal orthodoxies.
For this year, anyway, the contest is shaping up as a total rout. One of the most influential players in the tea party movement created a special campaign to take out 10 House members — and every one of them was re-nominated with varying degrees of ease. In other words, a perversely “perfect” political showing.
“Main Street Advocacy congratulates our friends at the Club for Growth,” the ad declares in big type, likening the 0-10 record to such exceptional sports feats as Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, the Miami Dolphins’ perfect NFL season in 1972 and the Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball team’s perfect season in 1976.
The last of those snide analogies was surely a jape aimed squarely at the president of the insurgent group, Chris Chocola, who represented Indiana in the House for two terms from 2003 to 2006. Full story
July 8, 2014
Perhaps by design, and maybe because of circumstance, Jim Risch remains among the least recognized senators after almost six years on the job. But, given the course of his path to Congress, he was at a big disadvantage from the start — if getting noticed was his desire.
In a place where fascinating back-stories and dramatic arrivals count for much, Risch had neither. He sailed to the Senate without suspense, a very conservative Republican claiming an open seat in very conservative Idaho in 2008, when the national political story was the big Democratic year. His credentials included a reputation for resilience and three decades as a power broker in his state house, but he was overlooked from the start and since then has rarely come off publicity’s back bench.
Risch’s underwhelming first-term impression illustrates one of the odder paradoxes of today’s congressional culture: The easier time a candidate has getting to the Hill, the tougher time that new lawmaker has getting noticed upon arrival.
The incumbents, staffers, operatives, lobbyists and reporters who make up the capital’s political class spend almost all their time at the water cooler handicapping the tight races and getting to know the would-be giant killers and takeover engineers. And those winners get disproportionate attention at the start of their congressional careers. Generally, that comes at the expense of the freshmen who got to Washington without breaking a sweat the previous fall.
The phenomenon comes to mind now that this year’s House and Senate nominees have been finalized in more than half the states — yielding a roster of 20 candidates for open seats who are, in effect, already on their way to the 114th Congress. Because of their constituencies’ demographics and solidly reliable partisan voting history, securing the party nomination in their districts or states is tantamount to winning the general election. Full story
June 22, 2014
Perhaps never before have the people of Harlem and Hattiesburg, the Bronx and Biloxi participated in such a similar referendum on the same day.
But that’s what is happening Tuesday, when voters in a lopsidedly liberal section of New York City, and all across reliably conservative Mississippi, will answer the same question: Has an icon of the modern Congress overstayed his welcome?
Other storylines are getting at least as much attention as Thad Cochran battles for the Republican nomination for a seventh term in the Senate and as Charles B. Rangel goes after the Democratic nomination for a 23rd term in the House. Down South, the principal narrative is about whether the tea party’s top senatorial hopeful can win the movement’s most prominent challenge to the GOP establishment. Up North, the script is framed mainly as a tale about the gains of Latinos at the expense of African-Americans as players in urban Democratic politics.
The protagonists in both those versions of the stories are state senators. A runoff triumph by Chris McDaniel, who’s turning 42 on June 28 would give him a shot at becoming an anchor tenant in the confrontational wing of the Senate GOP Conference next year. (He’d still have to win a potentially competitive race against centrist former Democratic Rep. Travis Childers.) A primary win by 59-year-old Adriano Espaillat in New York would be tantamount to his election as the first Dominican-American in Congress.
As the final weekend began for both campaigns, the consensus view was that Cochran’s hold on his seat was tenuous while Rangel was looking to survive.
Victories by either McDaniel or Espaillat would put them among the trendsetters in relatively new aspects of American public life. In that sense they are similar to the veterans they’re seeking to take out — each of whom is emblematic of a congressional evolution that started in the 1970s.
Cochran’s election as the first Republican senator from Mississippi in 100 years heralded his party’s coming takeover of the South. Rangel was in the vanguard of Congressional Black Caucus members who avoided rhetorical outrage in favor of leadership connections and deal-cutting skills to achieve tangible results for their constituents. Full story
June 12, 2014
It was impossible to imagine how Eric Cantor was going to remain House majority leader longer than a few more weeks. The biggest surprise is that he’s decided to hang on to his job title, if not really the job’s duties, until the end of July.
By getting soundly defeated in his Republican primary, Cantor made history as the most prominent member ever spurned by his own party for re-election. But that defeat transformed him on Wednesday into something much more immediately consequential: The most tangibly toothless person in the congressional leadership in more than a century.
Gaining the confidence of your party is the basic prerequisite for getting into the Hill hierarchy. Knowing where your caucus wants to be ideologically, and balancing that against where it needs to be, is a central requirement for staying on the leadership team. Making sure your colleagues remain beholden to you, legislatively and politically, is essential for success in the work — which can be described in blunt political terms as the daily gaining and spending of power.
For Cantor, all of that disappeared in a matter of hours on Tuesday, when his bid for an eighth term was rejected by 56 percent of the voters who had been his political base in central Virginia.
The comparison is far from perfect, but that was the closest thing American politics has seen in a long time to a parliamentary vote of no confidence. And when a prime minister is defeated in one of those, he is duty bound to offer his resignation.
A leader would be foolhardy to do otherwise, because such elections immediately drain the loser of every ounce of political capital. Full story
May 22, 2014
The figure has attained almost mythic status, but now it seems intuitively clear the number will come true: $100 million in spending on this year’s marquee Senate matchup in Kentucky, shattering the record for the most expensive congressional race in American history.
The explanations for such exorbitance have been well understood for a year. As the minority leader, Mitch McConnell would have no trouble raising whatever it took to dispatch his serious primary opponent and then wage an intense general election battle —mainly by running against President Barack Obama and virtually everything he stands for. Because she’s got by far the best takeover prospects of any Democratic Senate hopeful, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have no trouble raising whatever it takes to challenge the most influential, nationally polarizing Republican at the Capitol — in part by distancing herself from the president and his unpopular policies in the state.
And because control of the Senate for the next two years could very well hang in the balance, both national parties and legions of super PACs will spend whatever they can to tilt the outcome.
Kentucky, in other words, has always been first among equals on the roster of 2014 Senate battlegrounds. And, even as the roster of competitive contests has swelled past a dozen this spring, McConnell vs. Grimes showed no signs of yielding its status as the main event after Tuesday’s primary formalized their Nov. 4 matchup. (Averaging the four statewide polls in the past month, the most recent of which was last weekend, McConnell and Grimes are locked in a dead heat.)
Ahead of the primary, McConnell had raised $19.3 million, spending far more than half on television advertising and an elaborate get-out-the-vote precinct organization to secure his 60 percent of the Republican vote. Businessman Matt Bevin, who spent at least $4 million in hopes of engineering a tea party upset, drew just 35 percent.
While that was a trouncing by traditional measure, McConnell’s share of the vote was actually the smallest in a primary for any Kentucky senator seeking re-nomination since 1938. And Grimes, who faced only nominal opposition, was able to hold on to most of her war chest ($5 million in cash on hand on May 1) even while drawing about 95,000 more primary votes than McConnell. Full story
May 21, 2014
Pennsylvania’s primary voters have put an exclamation point on one of the lesser-understood realities of modern American politics. Being in the House is just not a good starting point for being elected governor.
Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz was soundly defeated Tuesday in her bid to become the Democratic challenger this November against Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, one of the most politically vulnerable state chief executives in the country. Her loss means that, for the 10th time in the past 13 election cycles, half or more of the members who ran for governor were unsuccessful.
The outcome in Pennsylvania leaves only one other person on the Hill eyeing the top job in a statehouse. That’s Rep. Michael H. Michaud of Maine, who has the Democratic nomination to himself and looks at the moment like a slight favorite come November against Gov. Paul R. LePage, another unpopular GOP incumbent in search of a second term in a currently bluish state.
The fact that only two members of Congress decided to give up their seats for gubernatorial bids is hardly unusual; the number making that move in the past 25 years has ranged from 11 in 1989-90 to just one last cycle. That was when former House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence was elected in Indiana, prompting more buzz about his national prospects in 2016 or beyond.
But Pence was something of the exception proving the rule. His victory raised the overall record for congressional lawmakers seeking governorships in the past quarter century to 23 wins and 48 losses — a success rate of just 32 percent.
The result is that, while 49 percent of the Senate’s membership is now made up of former House members, only nine current governors came straight out of Congress. (Two more, independent Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Democrat Mark Dayton in Minnesota, won their positions in comeback bids four years after being pushed out of Senate seats.)
The facts behind the differing fortunes of this year’s two-member class of gubernatorial aspirants, Schwartz and Michaud, help explain the challenges for House members seeking to move up. Full story
May 15, 2014
It’s been an undeniably rotten week for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And, just as certainly, the people running the House minority’s political operation have only themselves to blame.
One of the party’s mostly highly touted challengers to capture a seat in Florida abandoned his candidacy on Tuesday, after several holes too many appeared in his biography. Hours later, the party’s most senior incumbent running for re-election became a man without a place in his Michigan primary, after several hundred questionable signatures too many appeared on his ballot petitions.
The unsightly fortunes of both Ed Jany and Rep. John Conyers Jr., it seems clear, could have been avoided had the DCCC orchestrated — or at least insisted on — some minimal political and organizational due diligence.
In Tampa Bay, the problem is irreparable; the Democrats have now given away a House seat that was central to their midterm election goals. In Detroit, the party faces potentially lengthy legal and public relations challenges but in the end won’t have to sweat to hold one of the most lopsidedly Democratic districts in the country. Full story
May 7, 2014
He asked for it. And anyone politically savvy enough to win two Senate elections must have decent reasons for doing something that seems so counterintuitive.
Mark Pryor is the only Democrat in the Arkansas congressional delegation and currently a clear-cut underdog to secure another term. That’s mainly because only about a third of the state’s voters approve of the job performance of President Barack Obama, even poorer numbers than his 2012 faring — the president lost Arkansas by 24 percentage points. In 2008, he lost to Sen. John McCain by a mere 20 points in the Natural State.
And yet it was at Pryor’s urging that Obama on Wednesday made his first trip to the state as president — a 150-minute foray that in reality was largely about midterm campaign politics, even though it was officially all about getting the first-responder-in-chief to put his own eyes on the South’s severe natural disasters.
“The federal government’s going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt,” the president said after touring the tornado-ravaged suburb of Vilonia, 30 miles north of Little Rock. “I know you can count on your senator” and other local officials to deliver what will be required, Obama said, facing the cameras in shirt sleeves with a checkered-shirt-clad Pryor standing near his right shoulder.
Because of some unusual circumstances, the visit did not countermand the conventional wisdom that standing with the president is the most dangerous thing a vulnerable congressional Democrat could do between now and November.
Instead, the event provided Pryor with an extraordinary opportunity to burnish his own political brand. Full story
April 30, 2014
Political rhetoric gauge alert: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
The meter surged Tuesday morning when the House GOP campaign organization lambasted one of the year’s most prominent and best-financed Democratic challengers, 27-year-old venture capitalist Sean Eldridge, for “not even trying to hide the fact that he isn’t living in” the upstate New York district where he’s running. “Eldridge’s open contempt for the place he supposedly wants to represent is appalling,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ian Prior declared.
The news release could easily be dismissed as just another bit of routine springtime campaign hyperventilating. But the histrionics sounded exceptionally hypocritical for this reason: Eldridge was lambasted by an NRCC that is fully aware several of its own top 2014 prospects do not live in their prospective districts, either. Full story
April 29, 2014
The people who work in committee or personal offices on Capitol Hill can claim something of a unique benefit from representative democracy: They have more than one set of members to call their own.
Their allegiances aren’t only to the senator or House member, chairman or committee members who keep them on the payroll. Those lawmakers may dominate their workaday lives, but every such staffer is also a local congressional constituent — with a set of political allegiances and ideological interests that may well be different from what’s on display in their day jobs.
And this year, more than any other time in at least the past two decades, these Hill rats will be important players in deciding the makeup of the next Congress. That’s because thousands of them will be voting in three of the hottest contests of the midterms, for the pair of open House seats in northern Virginia and the state’s Senate race, which Republicans hope will become competitive.
Most congressional aides probably live close to their work in the District, where Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton is once again cruising toward another term (it will be her 13th) as the can’t-vote-on-the-House-floor delegate. Staffers who live in solidly blue suburban Maryland have seen only three congressional races that were even remotely close in the past decade.
But the booming Northern Virginia suburbs, fresh off their star turn as gubernatorial must-wins in 2013 and presidential bellwethers in both 2008 and 2012, are now looking at a very expensive triple encore in 2014. Commuters who cross the Potomac for jobs at the Capitol could prove decisive if all three contests remain close until their climaxes.
And they will all probably have the opportunity to vote for someone who knows their line of work: former Hill staffers are running as Republicans in all three races. Full story
April 16, 2014
The lead plaintiff in the “Can you lie in politics?” case going before the Supreme Court next week, anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, says Ohio’s law against false campaign assertions will stifle that state’s midterm congressional debates.
The group is apparently not worried about a similarly chilling effect elsewhere – at least not in four races elsewhere in the country where it’s inserted itself in recent days.
Over the weekend, the SBA List said it has arranged to put space on billboards across three Southern states to lambaste a trio of incumbent Democratic senators in some of the closest Senate races of 2014: Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Because all of them voted for the 2010 health care overhaul, each of them can fairly be described as supporting federal financing of abortion, the group says, and that will be the central message on the roadside signage. Full story
April 14, 2014
The Supreme Court has made pretty clear that putting your money where your mouth is deserves broad protection as a form of free political speech. The justices are about to consider whether outright lying in a campaign deserves a similar First Amendment shield.
The court’s recent decisions easing the flow of generous campaign contributions already shifted the electoral landscape. If the court finds that even the most patently outrageous statements about candidates may not be barred by law, those two decisions combined could expand the rhetorical battlefield of the midterm elections and raise the attack ad volume as never before.
With Congress in the middle of its spring recess, few if any members are expected to attend the April 22 oral arguments. But they will all surely have their ears tuned for word about the decision, expected by the end of the term in June.
April 6, 2014
One way of looking at the latest Supreme Court decision speeding the flow of big money into elections — a ruling destined to have a bigger impact on the culture of Congress than anything that happens at the Capitol this year — is that one side’s definition of political reality narrowly prevailed over the other.
Scenarios about the corrupting potential of so many more millions going to candidates, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asserted in the controlling opinion, “are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or divorced from reality.”
“In reality,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer countered on behalf of the four dissenters, “the anti-corruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest” than the five-person majority recognizes.
It’s hardly unusual that, after considering the same collection of facts and arguments, the court’s conservative majority declares the glass at least half full, while the liberal minority insists the same vessel is more than half empty. What’s remarkable in this disagreement is how distant the justices are from experiencing the reality of the modern political money system.
On the current court, only Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan have donated to federal candidates or political action committees in the past 16 years, according to the Federal Election Commission database of itemized contributions.
The most obvious reason is that the other seven justices have been sitting somewhere on the federal bench since before 1997, when the FEC began digitizing donation records. And, because of the obvious potential for a conflict of interest, the official code of conduct for United States judges prohibits them from making political contributions.
But that explanation leads directly to one of the longstanding criticism of the modern Supreme Court: It has become so dominated by professional jurists that people who have worked in the political arena have been almost entirely boxed out. Full story