Bursts from the sun threatened to play havoc with the Earth’s electromagnetic field this week. The surge of flares had the potential to become the strongest solar storm to blast the planet in years.
Solar storms don’t affect people directly. But the flares can discombobulate electrical equipment and rattle radio signals. The disturbance forced airlines to reroute some flights, especially those traveling near the poles.
But otherwise, solar storms are practically undetectable to humans.
There was a political solar storm on Tuesday. And much like the geomagnetic whirlwind prompted by a discharge of coronal plasma from the sun, this tempest was undetectable to most people involved in politics, too.
But just like their cosmic cousins, political solar storms have the potential to bring down power grids and knock radio communications offline, too.
Most politicos focused on the Super Tuesday battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. As is often the case, the battle came down to Ohio where the sweepstakes was tighter than a new pair of leather shoes on a rainy day. A vicious member-versus-member primary between Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) served as an intriguing undercard.
Yet the most stunning event of the night came when podiatrist and former Cincinnati mayoral candidate Brad Wenstrup unseated Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) in the GOP primary.
No one saw this coming.
And like solar flares from the sun, many House Republicans wondered if Schmidt’s loss had the potential to disrupt upcoming Republican primaries. Is it a harbinger? Few Republicans will say it is. But…
“It would certainly get Members’ antennas up,” predicted Rep. Tom Price (R-GA).
In fact, several Republican sources indicated that Schmidt’s loss may be a good thing.
“It forces other Republicans to straighten up,” said one source who monitors elections. “It reminds Members that they can be vulnerable and gets them with the program.”
The “environment” the source spoke of is one of electoral volatility. An anti-incumbent fever again permeates this election cycle – for Democrats and Republicans alike. If anything, this phenomenon remains particularly acute on the GOP side as Republican voters threw out as many of the Democratic “bums” as they could last cycle and rewarded Republicans. And since the GOP now controls the House, a combustible electorate may want to show some of those Republican “bums” the door during the primary season.
Numerous House Republicans were already skittish about potential primary challenges prior to Schmidt’s loss. Some fretted because local tea party groups railed against them because they failed to undo the health care law. Others regret their votes on key spending agreements because they didn’t shave enough federal money from the budget. Some lament their vote to increase the debt ceiling last August.
“Members (of Congress) are paranoid anyway,” said one Republican lawmaker who asked not to be identified. “And stuff like (Schmidt’s defeat) compounds it.”
Over the past 15 months, the House Republican leadership team has lost anywhere from 40-plus to 90-plus of their own members on major bills. For example, the GOP lost 59 of their own on a package to keep the government running last spring. Forty-eight Republicans abandoned their party on a bill to avoid a government shutdown in September. Sixty-six GOPers voted against leadership on an effort to hike the debt limit last summer.
Jean Schmidt had a mixed record on some of those major votes. She voted against closing the government in April and September, 2011. Many of the Republicans who voted no argued that the spending cuts weren’t significant enough. She also voted to raise the debt ceiling in August. However, in mid-February, Schmidt voted against extending the payroll tax cut.
That February vote reflected one of the most-intense, internecine fights waged in the Republican ranks in years. The House approved the payroll tax holiday 293-132. But not without losing 91 GOPers, the high-water mark for Republican defections during the 112th Congress.
Perhaps mindful of her primary, Schmidt’s vote mirrored the reservations of dozens of other House Republicans about the payroll tax bill. Republicans like tax reductions. But there’s a new orthodoxy on the right which requires that such tax breaks are paid for. This one wasn’t. And while approving the payroll tax cut extension might be good politics to attract independent and Democratic voters, it’s not going to impress voters in a Republican primary.
Schmidt’s primary opponent, Brad Wenstrup, portrayed himself as a tea party candidate. For years, some of Schmidt’s Republican opponents complained that she wasn’t conservative enough. That’s interesting because the American Conservative Union (ACU) has bolstered Schmidt’s rating nearly every year she’s been in Congress. She started at 88 percent in 2005, climbed to 92 percent in 2007 and then backtracked to 87 percent in 2008. But Schmidt secured perfect 100 percent from the ACU in 2009 and 2010. The National Rife Association gave her an “A” rating and she earned a 100 percent figure from National Right to Life.
But Schmidt’s voting record didn’t fare as well with other metrics.
National Journal awarded Schmidt an 82.2 “conservative” score in 2011. The Club for Growth gave Schmidt a “79 percent” for her career in Congress. The Heritage Foundation Action Scorecard recorded Schmidt at 76 percent.
But those numbers don’t mean much when facing a tea party candidate in a turbulent election year.
“It does reflect how rigid and unforgiving the electorate has become,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) when asked about Schmidt’s loss. “It’s a continuing, narrowing of their party.”
But to be sure, Schmidt’s defeat is a special case.
For starters, Schmidt has dramatically underperformed in a district which current Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) used to carry with 70 percent of the vote before he resigned to become U.S. Trade Representative. Schmidt barely beat Democrat and Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett in a special election in the summer of 2005. President George W. Bush carried that district with 64 percent less than a year before.
As the House’s most-junior member, Schmidt nearly ignited a fistfight on the House floor just months into her first term. The late-Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA), a Marine and the first Vietnam Veteran to serve in Congress, had proposed withdrawing troops from Iraq. During floor debate, Schmidt looked at Murtha in the eye and quoted a Marine Corps Reservist who asked that she give the Pennsylvania Democrat a message.
“Cowards cut and run. Marines never do,” Schmidt lectured.
The remark triggered a torrent not seen on the House floor in years.
Saturday Night Live lampooned the incident that weekend. SNL took particular aim at Schmidt’s star-spangled, red and blue dress, likening it to something that would be worn by a “1970s gymnast.”
Schmidt then struggled to defeat Democratic candidate Victoria Wulsin in 2006 and 2008. In 2006, Schmidt narrowly topped 50 percent. Wulsin and other candidates held the Congresswoman to a paltry 45 percent in 2008.
Schmidt also had a run-in with the House Ethics Committee last year when she accepted a half-million dollars in legal assistance from a Turkish-American group. The Ethics Committee did not formally discipline Schmidt. But it did ask her to return the money.
Then there was the influence of the superpac Campaign for Primary Accountability. The superpac poured $50,000 into the race, upbraiding the Ohio Republican in radio ads.
“She was a deeply flawed member, at risk of losing during a perfect storm,” said one Republican lawmaker who asked anonymity.
That political solar storm came Tuesday for Schmidt.
And now some House Republicans are wary of cloudbursts brewing on their primary horizons.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) faces seven primary challengers.
“If you have a primary opponent, you have a problem,” said Bartlett.
The next big primary challenge to watch comes this Tuesday. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-AL) faces three primary challengers. Bachus has historically cruised to re-election. But this year could be different. Like in the Schmidt contest, the Campaign for Primary Accountability is targeting Bachus. In the past month, Bachus has come under fire. His office indicated that the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was conducting a preliminary inquiry into whether the Congressman may have engaged in insider trading.
Like Schmidt, Bachus’s voting record could face scrutiny from conservatives. Bachus voted to raise the debt ceiling last summer but also voted against extending the payroll tax break last month. He commanded an 96 percent ACU rating in 2010. But the Alabama Republican dipped to 80 percent in 2011. Bachus’s lifetime score is 91.92 percent.
After Bachus, watch for a member-versus-member tilt between freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and veteran Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-IL) in April. The two lawmakers are running against one another due to redistricting. Both Kinzinger and Manzullo voted for the payroll tax cut break and to lift the debt limit. But Manzullo’s career voting record is much more conservative than Kinzinger’s. Manzullo takes a career rating of 95.51 percent from the ACU while Kinzinger clocks in at 72 percent.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) took the rare step of picking sides in the contest, throwing his support behind Kinzinger.
“I’m particularly close to Adam Kinzinger and (have) confidence in him,” said Cantor during an appearance Thursday on Special Report with Bret Baier. “It is not about him. This is Kinzinger that can represent the future of the party.”
But several sources indicated that Cantor weighed in because Kinzinger isn’t running strongly enough to beat Manzullo. It’s thought that a Cantor endorsement could boost Kinzinger. Meantime, a source close to Manzullo believed that Cantor’s nod could have the opposite effect, inflaming ultra-conservative factions which are already displeased with the House GOP leadership team.
Political analysts can chalk up Jean Schmidt’s unexpected loss this week to a host of factors. Schmidt’s race was may have been an isolated event and it’s too early to sound the alarm bells across the board for Republican incumbents. That could be the case. But with a caveat.
“The problem with winning elections is that then you have to do things,” opined Steny Hoyer. The Maryland Democrat knows this all too well, remembering how Republicans crucified House Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections for their votes on the stimulus package, the cap and trade climate bill and health care reform.
And that’s why so many House Republicans are nervous now. No one anticipated Schmidt’s defeat. And like this week’s solar storm, they’re worried there’s some undetectable political plasma burst lurking out there, ready to disrupt their primary.