The Speaker’s Lobby: Political Fracture

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

22 February 2010

Here’s a political hypothesis:

In 2008, voters chose the most-liberal member of the U.S. Senate to become President of the United States.

In early 2009, a vast swath of lawmakers representing Congressional districts from rural Pennsylvania and Alabama joined urban lawmakers from Brooklyn and South Central Los Angeles to again tap one of their most-liberal colleagues from one of the most left-leaning cities in the country to become Speaker of the House.

The logical conclusion is that the country’s political ideology banked hard to the left. And it would follow that the populace would be enraptured with passing health care reform legislation, approving a climate change bill and launching record government spending to jump-start a sagging economy.

What happened?

It’s easy. Two liberal lawmakers rose to the zenith of power. Meantime, voters flooded the House and Senate with moderate and conservative Democrats, whose philosophies don’t align with those of President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Democrats multiplied their House majority in 2008 by electing political moderates like Reps. Frank Kratovil (D-MD), Bobby Bright (D-AL), Tom Perriello (D-VA) Glenn Nye (D-VA), Steve Driehaus (D-OH) and Walt Minnick (D-ID). Each of these lawmakers successfully flipped a Republican seat into Democratic hands. But their elections in these swing districts doesn’t mean that voters think much of Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi.

And there’s the rub for Congressional Democrats this November.

Consider the seat that Kratovil holds. Most of the district is rural and sprawls across the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s sandwiched between liberal bastions like Washington, DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. But politically, the district has more in common with agriculture-rich regions of Nebraska or the sea culture of the Gulf Coast.

Kratovil squeaked by in 2008 by a fraction of a percentage point, garnering less than 50 percent of the vote. However, here’s the problem: When voting for president, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) outpolled Mr. Obama by 18 points in Kratovil’s district. And in 2004, President Bush horsewhipped Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) by 26 points.

The news isn’t much better for Tom Perriello.

Perriello upset former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) by two-tenths of a percentage point. McCain defeated the president by three points in that Southside Virginia district. And President Bush only clocked John Kerry by 13 points there in 2004.

Notice a trend?

Now here’s where Democrats really need to worry.

When it comes to fiscally-conscious, social conservative Blue Dog Democrats, Rep. John Tanner (D-TN) is right out of central casting. Tanner represents a sprawling district that stretches between Nashville and Memphis. He speaks with a deep drawl, smokes cigars and frets about the national debt. Tanner ran unopposed last cycle and vanquished a Republican challenger by 47 points in 2006. But Tanner hangs it up at the end of this Congress. And Republicans view his district as ripe for a GOP pickup this fall. One of the reasons? McCain flattened the president by 13 points in the presidential election there and George W. Bush beat Kerry by seven points.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. For the midterm elections, Republicans are painting bullseyes on the backs of many senior House Democrats. The GOP is prepping to run vigorous campaigns against a host of Democrats who have served in the House for more than two decades and chair key committees or subcommittees. Republican strategists believe that some of these lawmakers could be caught napping in a tidal wave election cycle. Moreover, the GOP notes that some of these districts have Republican leanings. They assert that Democrats only hold those seats today because the sitting lawmaker was elected at the right time and has been able to hold on since, despite emerging conservative trends.

For instance, Republicans would love to knock off House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO). First elected in 1976, Skelton marshaled nearly two-thirds of the vote in his rural, central Missouri district in 2008. A student of military history, it’s hard to find a more ardent supporter of the men and women in uniform than Skelton. But John McCain pulverized Barack Obama there by 23 points. That race was nip and tuck compared to the 29 point shellacking George W. Bush doled out to John Kerry six years ago.

Republicans also look to the district held by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Voters sent Boucher to Washington in 1982 and he hasn’t faced a tough contest since the Reagan years. Boucher chairs the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. And as a result, few lawmakers are better versed in the web and telecommunications policy. From that post, Boucher’s been a strong advocate for wiring rural areas with broadband. He’s argued that technology can help educate a rural population and boost its potential for economic development. Still, coal is king in the mountains. And Boucher is one of that industry’s most vocal supporters.

Boucher voted for the climate bill and its aim to slice carbon emissions. But he did so only after securing concessions that he argues won’t imperil coal companies and put displace miners. Boucher glided to re-election with nearly unanimous approval in 2008. However, Republicans are prepping to use the climate vote against Boucher this round. And both McCain and Bush triumphed in Boucher’s district with 59 percent of the vote.

Republicans are also readying campaigns against other influential Democrats. Those include House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV), Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), who leads the subcommittee that funds the Departments of Commerce and Justice and even House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI). Voters elected that trio in 1976, 1982 and 1969, respectively. The last time any of them faced close contests was Mollohan in 1984. 

If the GOP wants 2010 to be a political earthquake, it will need to wipe out the likes of Skelton, Boucher, Rahall, Mollohan and Obey. In 1994, the GOP unseated House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA), Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-TX). Republicans can’t capture the House unless it pries loose some of the Democrats’ most firmly-entrenched members. Which remains a remarkably tall order.

Many of the seats Republicans are focusing on feature distinct Republican trends. President Obama and Nancy Pelosi are both unpopular in many of these districts. And voters there are swatting away their proposals on health care reform, climate change and big government spending.

That’s a political fault line. Much of the country was willing to elect Democrats to the House and Senate so long as they were moderates or conservatives. And the policies of the president and speaker aren’t in synch with the district dynamics held by moderate Democrats.

Perhaps this fracture was inevitable. The U.S. is a center-right nation. Yet it elected a liberal to the White House and lawmakers chose a liberal to be speaker. And that’s the political dissonance Republicans will try to seize on this fall.

–          Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–          The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and reporters often confer there during votes.