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- Josh Holmes, the Mastermind of Team Mitch
Posts in "Political Class"
November 19, 2014
Maybe the lovers of congressional curiosities still haven’t mined the 2014 election results for all the political and institutional trivia pushed toward the surface.
An initial potpourri was offered Tuesday in this space — fun and sometimes consequential facts that go beyond the historic statistics that put context behind Republicans’ midterm sweep. That, of course, is the GOP’s current net gain of 11 House seats assures them their largest majority since the Truman administration, and their potential pickup of nine Senate seats would be the biggest boost for either party since 1980.
A special election held on Nov. 4 means Congress now has its 100th voting female member for the first time, in North Carolina Democrat Alma Adams, and the midterms assured more diversity in the coming year. Debbie Dingell of Michigan has become the first person elected to the House as successor to a living spouse, for example, and the arrival of Baptist pastors Jody Hice of Georgia and Mark Walker of North Carolina (both Republicans) will expand to six the roster of Protestant ministers in the House.
(You can learn more about the members-elect in our Guide to the New Congress.)
Here is another collection of trivia questions and answers designed to provide insight into the meaning, consequences and oddities of the 2014 cycle. See Part I here.
November 18, 2014
For those fond of congressional political and historical arcana (and count me among them) every second November produces a treasure trove of statistics and other fun facts — some that help illustrate the trends of the election past, others that point toward likely story lines of the Congress to come.
Hill dwellers who paid even minimal attention to the midterms probably have committed a handful of the most important of these to memory: Republicans boosted their ranks by 5 percent in the House, but by at least 18 percent in the Senate (20 percent if the Louisiana runoff goes their way). John Barrow’s defeat will leave the House without a single white Democrat from the Deep South for the first time ever. At 30 years and four months, Republican Elise Stefanik of New York is now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. And the balance of power in Congress was decided by just 36 percent of eligible voters – the smallest turnout for any federal election since 1942.
Here are some post-election trivia questions — and answers — that may provide some modest insight into the meaning, consequences or just plain oddities of campaign 2014. We’ll post the second half on Wednesday.
Question: What will be the fifth state, as of January, to produce two Senate majority leaders?
Republican Mitch McConnell will become only the 24th person in the position since it was formally created in 1911. His Bluegrass State predecessor, Alben W. Barkley, ran the Senate on behalf of the Democrats for a decade starting in 1937 and later was Harry Truman’s vice president. Maine is the only other state that was home to a majority leader from each party: Republican Wallace H. White Jr. (1947-49) and Democrat George Mitchell (1989-95).
The other states have produced only GOP leaders: John W. Kern (1913-15) and James E. Watson (1929-33) from Indiana, Charles Curtis (1923-29) and Bob Dole (1985-86 and 1995-96) from Kansas, and Howard H. Baker Jr. (1981-85) and Bill Frist (2003-07) from Tennessee.
Answer: Massachusetts and Georgia.
Question: Which states saw the most House members elected without major-party opposition?
Two-thirds of the Bay State’s seats (six of nine) went uncontested by the GOP, guaranteeing victories for Democrats Richard E. Neal, Jim McGovern, Joseph P. Kennedy III, Katherine M. Clark, Michael E. Capuano and Stephen F. Lynch. But seven from Georgia (half the winners) also ran unopposed. They are Democratic Reps. Hank Johnson, John Lewis and David Scott; Republican Reps. Lynn Westmoreland, Austin Scott and Tom Graves; and GOP freshman-elect Barry Loudermilk.
Answer: Jeff Sessions.
Question: Who was the first senator in four years to win re-election without any opponent from a major party?
He faced no Democrat on Nov. 4 and no one else from the GOP in the Alabama primary. (Though he still managed to spend $1 million.) He took 52 percent in 1996, when he became only the second Republican elected to the Senate from the state since Reconstruction, and won his previous two races with 59 percent and then 63 percent. The last unopposed senator, in 2010, was Republican John Thune of South Dakota. But such victories are not necessarily a predictor of future electoral comfort. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor didn’t even have a token GOP challenger when he won his second term six years ago, and this year he was swept out of office with Rep. Tom Cotton claiming almost 57 percent of the vote. Could that have something to do with why Thune already has stockpiled an astonishing $9.5 million for his 2016 race in his low-cost state?
Question: Which state looks to provide at least four, but probably six, of the 21 chairmen of House standing committees next year?
It’s a delegation dominance of panel leadership not matched in modern times. (The closest was 20 years ago, when five California Democrats were full committee chairmen.) In the 114th Congress, four Lone Star State Republicans are sure to keep the gavels they now hold: Jeb Hensarling at Financial Services, Michael McCaul at Homeland Security, Pete Sessions at Rules and Lamar Smith at Science, Space and Technology. They are likely to be joined by K. Michael Conaway at Agriculture and Mac Thornberry at Armed Services.
No other state will have more than two House chairmen in the new year. Michigan will continue to have Fred Upton at Energy and Commerce, along with Candice S. Miller at House Administration, but that’s a mighty comedown from the Wolverine State’s current power profile. In the House, Upton and Miller are joined by Dave Camp at Ways and Means and Mike Rogers at Intelligence, while in the Senate, Armed Services is under the purview of Carl Levin and Agriculture is run by Debbie Stabenow. (All but Stabenow are retiring, and she will be in the minority party.)
Across the Capitol, two different states might have both senators as committee chairmen in 2015. From Tennessee, that’s Bob Corker at Foreign Relations and Lamar Alexander at Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. From Alabama, it’s Richard C. Shelby at Banking, and probably Jeff Sessions at Budget.
Question: What’s the only name that will be shared by a state’s pair in the Senate?
James Lankford will join fellow Republican James M. Inhofe as the senators from Oklahoma. (Both of them normally answer to “Jim.”) The last time a Senate delegation shared the same first name was 2012, when the 23 years of shared service for Hawaii by the two Daniel K.’s — Inouye and Akaka — came to an end. The Hawaii lawmakers also were born just four days apart, in Honolulu in September 1924, whereas Inhofe is 33 years older than his new peer.
November 12, 2014
The notion that Congress is like college usually gets highlighted a few times each year: When members are rushing to meet several legislative deadlines before a lengthy recess, they tend to act very much like students at the end of the semester — pulling all-nighters to cram for exams and churn out papers assigned months ago.
But never is Capitol Hill more like a collegiate campus than in the middle of every even-numbered November, when all the newcomer lawmakers arrive — embodying a yeasty mix of wide-eyed naïveté and intensely competitive focus — to begin learning how dramatically their lives are about to change. It may be officially dubbed New Member Orientation, but those who have lived through it routinely describe it as “freshman week.”
Indoctrination into the formalities and folkways of life as a member of Congress begin Wednesday on both sides of the Hill. Six Republicans who have never held federal office before, joined by four Republicans and a single Democrat preparing to decamp from the House, will spend until Friday being instructed by their new Senate colleagues and some senior staffers on the parliamentary procedures, ethical expectations and bureaucratic necessities of their new workplace. (Two potential GOP Senate freshmen won’t be there because their fates won’t be certain for some time, thanks to slow ballot counting in Dan Sullivan’s Alaska and the runoff in Rep. Bill Cassidy’s Louisiana.)
A similar series of bipartisan orientation meetings, starting with a massive cocktail party Wednesday evening and lasting until a lottery for office assignments on Nov. 19, is in store for at least 42 Republicans and 17 Democrats who have secured seats in the House. (Hope is still alive for GOP challengers to five Democratic incumbents in races that remain too close to call, and a pair of seats won’t be filled until the Dec. 6 Louisiana runoff.)
October 28, 2014
After the probability of a Republican takeover of the Senate (for the first time in eight years) and the possibility that more than six governors will be defeated (for the first time in 30 years) comes the other big subplot of the midterm elections: Will Republicans win more than 56 percent of House districts for only the second time since World War II?
Such an achievement — which would require a net gain of nine seats — would be more symbolic than substantive, because the House majority will have essentially the same legislative torque next year whether the roster remains close to its current 233 or grows to the 240s. That appears to be the outer limit of the GOP’s potential for growth, although some late October surprise could allow a bigger wave to build in the campaign’s final days.
But getting to the upper end of that range would be consequential in another way. Realizing pickups in the double digits would require victories by a disproportionate share of the GOP candidates who have not come out of the party’s traditional straight, white male mold. Republicans are on course to expand their female membership and elect at least one black member, and their freshman class could also include a pair of Latinos and two openly gay men.
If many of those people win, and the House Republican Conference is more demographically diverse than ever next year, that could do the party significant good over the long run. Creating a caucus that looks even a little bit more like America, in fact, could be more beneficial in the run-up to 2016 than staging a series of veto showdowns against President Barack Obama in his lame-duck years. Full story
October 15, 2014
Twenty days out, and the sum of all the polling, computer modeling and intangibles says that both Senate storylines are still possible. The headline defining the midterm elections could end up being written by a few thousand people scattered west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies — voters who may not decide until the afternoon of Nov. 4 whether to head to the local library or school cafeteria to cast the decisive ballots.
The Democrats can still retain their majority by holding their losses to five seats — the number of turnovers currently projected by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call race ratings. But the GOP can still realize a decisive takeover; if all our current Tossup races end up falling to the Republicans, their net gain would be eight seats, two more than the six they need to reclaim control.
Turnout will drive the outcome. And polling in the past couple of weeks has sent strong signals that Republicans are more motivated to get to the polls and so will show up in potentially dispositive numbers.
Democratic voters are less interested in the elections than Republicans, according to survey results released over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal, NBC News and the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The poll found that while all registered voters prefer a Democratic Congress by a narrow 48 percent to 43 percent, the number is more than reversed when it comes to the voters who say they’re very interested in the elections: 51 percent are hoping for a GOP sweep, while just 44 percent are rooting for the Democrats.
Similar, albeit more detailed, numbers were reported a week ago by Gallup. It found that, overall, voters have thought less about the elections, are less motivated to vote and are less enthusiastic about their choices than in the previous two midterms. But the Republican numbers on all three fronts are much better than for the Democrats: 12 points higher on attention paid to the campaign, 19 points higher on motivation to vote and 18 points higher on excitement about voting. “As a result, even if overall turnout is depressed compared with prior years, Republicans appear poised to turn out in greater numbers than Democrats,” Gallup concluded.
The Democrats are keenly aware of this voter engagement gap, which the pollsters say is about what it was before the GOP won control of the House in 2010 — then, just as now, voters were casting ballots to show their dissatisfaction with the job performances of both Congress and President Barack Obama. Full story
October 1, 2014
The latest round of Cabinet handicapping is well underway, a welter of uninformed speculation (mixed with some White House trial balloons) about who might be nominated as attorney general. And the names of three Democratic senators keep getting bandied about — although they’ve all, with varying degrees of intensity, denied interest in the appointment.
From President Barack Obama’s perspective, it would arguably make sense for him, in the short term, to return to the congressional well for one of the final topflight, polarizing positions he’ll ever get the opportunity to fill. But the long-term downsides appear far greater — not only for his own legacy, but for the already wobbly balance of power at the Capitol.
Besides, taking the job at this time doesn’t look like a smart career move for any of the Senate trio meriting recent mention: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Full story
September 24, 2014
“Never discuss politics or religion in polite company” is one of those rules to live by that family elders have been passing on for generations.
Now comes word that half the country has reached a different conclusion: Politics should play a bigger role in our religious discourse.
At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence to support the grandparental view that talking openly about religion and politics will only lead to discord. As with so much, Republicans and Democrats sharply disagree about how and when the two should mix.
Those are the central takeaways from the latest Pew Research Center survey of attitudes and trends shaping public life, released Tuesday. The new numbers add yet another layer to the rich portrait of an electorate that’s divided and conflicted about more or less everything.
Perhaps the most dramatic finding is how the public has rapidly become evenly split when asked if churches and other houses of worship should regularly express their views on social and political issues: 49 percent now say yes, 48 percent say no. It’s a marked reversal from the steady decline in support for church intervention in such matters during the previous decade. Just one campaign season ago, those who wanted churches to stay out of public policy debates outnumbered those who advocated such participation by 14 percentage points.
In addition, 32 percent now say religious leaders should make candidate endorsements — an 8-point jump since the last midterms, in 2010, when the conservative tea party wave delivered the House to the GOP.
Preachers, rabbis, imams and the like have a First Amendment right to explain their views of economic, social or foreign policy to their congregations, and they may engage more directly in campaigns by participating in outside organizations or political action committees. But the IRS has told religious leaders they endanger their faith community’s tax-exempt status whenever they urge a vote for or against a particular candidate from the pulpit. A growing number of preachers, at both ends of the ideological spectrum, have talked about testing the constitutionality of those restrictions.
The survey revealed a deepening partisan split about the role of religion in politics. Two in five Democrats currently think churches should be more vocal about their views, the same as in 2010. But among Republicans the number has surged from half in 2010 to three-fifths today — and to fully two-thirds among white evangelical Protestants. And while 28 percent in the Democratic Party favor churches making candidate endorsements, the same is true for 38 percent in the GOP. Full story
September 7, 2014
This week’s unveiling of the 50 richest members of Congress, a signature Roll Call annual report, will underscore the recent reality that about 10 percent of the nation’s lawmakers are in the 1 percent when it comes to their net worth.
Another reminder that so many members are so much wealthier than their constituents surely won’t do anything for already abysmal congressional approval ratings (an average 14.3 percent in half a dozen national polls since July 4). To most of the electorate, the roster will be just another annoying reminder of a Capitol Hill that too often seems out of touch.
So the only potential suspense is about whether the revelations of riches will complicate the campaigns for the handful of endangered incumbents on the list. The answer is almost certainly not.
July 28, 2014
Conventional wisdom holds that if Republicans take the Senate, generational turnover and term limits will combine to produce a balky and potentially amateurish legislative process next year.
That theory gets challenged by a close look at how the committee gavels are likely to be distributed if the party picks up the necessary six seats, which current race-by-race assessments reveal has become a slightly better than even-money proposition. Eight of the 20 chairmanships — including for almost all the premier policy-making panels — would be held by senators who have had such responsibility in Congress in the past.
In other words, the committee leadership in the 114th Congress would benefit from a significant amount of expertise and seasoning, even though in the aggregate the potential new Senate Republican majority would be relatively inexperienced. (If there are 51 members of the caucus come January, the minimum needed for a takeover, only two-fifths of them will have been senators for a decade or longer.) 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 25, 2014
Parsing an important congressional roll call, let alone comparing two votes on similar questions a dozen years apart, is a complex and caveat-infused exercise.
So reactions ranging from “Of course!” and “Aha!” to “Who knew?” and “What’s up with that?” are bound to spring up when reviewing last week’s House vote on funding for a revived combat operation in Iraq — especially when aligning that tally sheet with the one authorizing the initial invasion of the country.
During the three days of debate on the annual defense spending package, most of the lobbying furor and press attention was on Pentagon procurement priorities, the House’s move to stop any transfers from Guantánamo and the drive to curtail government spying. But for hard core hawks and ardent doves, the key vote was about whether to bar any new U.S. combat operations to help quell the sectarian warfare that’s overtaking Iraq.
The outcome wasn’t even close. Just 3 out of every 8 members (165 total) took the anti-war hard line. (Instead, the House adopted by voice vote a requirement that the administration consult and report to Congress before reviving military involvement.)
While the lopsided result preserved all of President Barack Obama’s options for using force, it masks an important political reality he will be pressed to keep in mind during the next five months. Members of his party with the most to lose on Election Day are minimally supportive of any more war under this commander in chief. Full story
June 19, 2014
Anticlimactic has become the word to describe Thursday’s secret ballot to choose a new House majority leader. Everything points to a solid victory by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California; the only mixed signals are about whether Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho will receive more than 50 votes, a symbolic threshold because that’s more than one-fifth of the 233 members of the Republican Conference.
Absent much suspense, it’s not too soon to consider the most important takeaways from the election. Here are four of them: Full story
June 17, 2014
Some of the most pointed passages in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir confront the congressional Republican criticism about Benghazi. That’s hardly a surprise, given that the book is so clearly a positioning document for another presidential run in which one major line of GOP attack will be against the former secretary of State’s handling of the assault on that U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
What comes off as much more of a surprise is how Clinton steers almost entirely clear of criticizing individual Republicans from Capitol Hill, while singling out a collection of prominent establishment GOP members for praise. The roster of congressional name checks in “Hard Choices,” in fact, is remarkably bipartisan. She says nice things about her dealings with a dozen Democratic senators or representatives, but almost as many Republicans, during her eight years in the Senate and her subsequent four years at the State Department.
Counting up the mentions in a prominent politician’s book is among a typical Washington striver’s bad habits, and many on the Hill have been doing just that in the week since the book went on sale.
But in this case, the exercise could offer a clue about how Clinton may deal with Republicans if she seeks or wins the White House in two years. She may be content to remain on decent terms with a small cadre of GOP centrists, the sort President Barack Obama has labeled the “common sense caucus,” while disdaining and dismissing her legions of conservative critics without calling them out individually. 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 28, 2014
Updated, 3:20 p.m. | With public hearings still weeks away, it’s too soon to fairly predict whether a purely political show trial or a riveting investigatory breakthrough is in store from the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.
But it’s not too early to look at the cast of characters who make up the panel’s membership for clues about what each side has in mind. (Check out our handy cheat sheet.)
In some aspects, the makeup of the parties’ rosters is fundamentally different, in ways that make clear the Republicans are planning to be on offense from the outset while the Democrats are going to dig in to play defense. In other areas, the group is a reminder of the stark biographical differences between the two caucuses. But in a few ways, the committee’s characteristics are curiously different from the House as a whole.
Most consequentially, while one out of every eight districts nationwide is at least somewhat politically competitive at the moment, no one on the select committee sits in one. All 12 are virtually certain to win re-election in November. That means none of them has any short-term political need to adopt the role of evenhanded inquisitor, because none needs to play it down the middle to appeal to the swing voters who could decide their fate.
On the contrary, the Republicans have been given an opportunity to fortify their conservative bases by taking on the Obama administration as forcefully as possible, just as the Democrats have been afforded a way to appeal to their liberal bases by adopting a “Let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here” approach. Full story