hardline political news and analysis

Month: October, 2014

The House Majority and the Governors

Much of the focus about control of Congress is centered on the close battle for the Senate and the challenges facing House Democrats in 2014. But the key to future House control may well rest with the outcome of key gubernatorial races next Tuesday, races that could impact, in multiple ways, the prospects for a Democratic House majority in years to come.

Three major structural problems confront Democrats who yearn to return soon to the House majority, restore Nancy Pelosi to a productive speakership, and provide President Hillary Clinton with a Congress that favorably responds to the policy initiatives on which she may well be elected in 2016.

  • Gerrymandering: A fact of political life that may be susceptible to minimization, but has defied various reform efforts for over two hundred years, since the creation of the nefarious “dragon district” in 1812.
  • Population concentration: Democrats tend to pack themselves into cities, providing massive majorities for districts crammed with likeminded voters, but starving the suburbs and rural areas of enough Democrats to be competitive. As a result, Democrats tend to win overwhelming margins in elections with votes they don’t need; whether you win with 55% or 70% of the vote, you still get a House voting card. These disproportionate districts are terrific for incumbents but do not reflect the distribution of House seats state-wide. Overall, Democrats outpolled Republicans in 2012 House races by 1.5 million votes, but remained a minority in the lower chamber. It is not unusual for Democrats in big states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan to win a clear majority of votes cast for President only to fall far short in the individual districts.
  • Voting Rights Act Uncertainties: Since the Supreme Court eviscerated the VRA last year, it may be increasingly difficult to ensure that fair districts are created and minority voters fairly participate. In addition, as a result of the VRA, in part, many minority Democratic voters since the 1990s have been packed into districts that ensure the election of black and Latino legislators by wide margins, but which leave the remaining districts in the state with too few Democrats to be competitive. Disseminating the minority voters more equitably would result in many more competitive House districts, but may well reduce the chance that minority candidates would represent them since it is still the rare majority white district that elects a minority candidate.

Another major factor, however, will be the person, and party, occupying each governorship when the next reapportionment occurs following the 2020 election. In many states, controlling the governor’s mansion will have a significant impact on the district lines drawn by Legislature that will determine the design of the House for the subsequent decade. With a sympathetic Legislature, a governor can influence reapportionment to benefit his or her party; with divided government in the state, a governor can veto a plan that is disadvantageous to his or her party.

Many states electing governors next Tuesday bear careful watching, even though a number of these governors may be termed out in 2018 and no longer in office to affect the reapportionment process in 2021-2022. A loss by an incumbent Republican governor, as may well occur in Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin would result in a Democratic governor who, learning from the mistakes of his predecessor, might well realize the benefits of incumbency and win re-election in 2018, ensuring that a Democratic governor oversees reapportionment.

Other states may re-elect a Republican governor this year, such as Ohio, Florida, and Georgia, who would then be precluded from running again in 2018, depriving Republicans of the benefits of incumbency. Close races in these states this year signify a credible state Democratic party and, as in Georgia, a Democratic candidate who may well re-emerge four years hence with wide recognition and a sound campaign infrastructure. Such a retread might stand a better chance of victory when running for an open seat rather than against a Republican incumbent. Ohio is a bit of an anomaly, for while John Kasich looks to be cruising to a major victory, he has drawn a weak opponent, although Democrats in the state remain a potent force.

By contrast, several key Democratic governors will win by substantial margins this year such as Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, and while they likely will probably not be in office in 2021, their states are Democratic powerhouses that likely will remain in Democratic hands after they have moved along. There are other Democratic governors who could lose, in Illinois and Colorado particularly, elevating Republicans to a key role in reapportionment should they perform well and win re-election in 2018; however these governorships will almost certainly be highly contested in 2018 since the current incumbent (and threatened) governors have unique vulnerabilities that may well not translate to the next Democratic contender.

Two key governorships are not on the ballot this year because they held off-year elections last year: New Jersey and Virginia. In the case of the former, it is highly plausible that a Democrat will succeed Chris Christie, who won against a highly flawed Democratic incumbent in this deep blue state. And while Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe cannot run for a second term, Republicans have been having a difficult time in state-wide races in the Old Dominion, a trend which may well continue

The bottom line is that in a host of states with large Democratic electorates that voted for Barack Obama twice and will likely vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 should she run, Democrats could find themselves well-positioned for 2018 and the reapportionment that will follow. In many of these states, a fair drawing of the lines will result in more competitive seats than is the case at present, yielding races that may elect those who are less beholden to the hard core base of either party which controls so much power in one-party districts where tiny turnouts by the hardest core base determines nominations and elections.

That is not to say the reapportionment process will be without political undertones; despite judges, commissions and other contrivances created to avoid the influence of party in this time-honored process. As it has often been noted, you can’t take politics out of politics. But perhaps the process could be made more balanced and districts might better reflect the true distribution of voters. Governors will play a key role in those decisions, which is why it pays to keep a sharp eye on the race for the governors’ mansions next Tuesday.


The Name of the Game Isn’t Just Money

One would have to be a fool – or apparently, a member of the Supreme Court majority in the Citizens United decision – not to be appalled by the surfeit of lucre that is poisoning America’s politics. A potentially-related issue – the tendency for high political office to revert to those with familiar names – also suggests a retooling of our democracy is worth considering.

On the question of money, there is little debate. In many of the key Senate races being contested next month, over half of the reported “independent” money has been donated by … well, we don’t know, because thanks to the Supreme Court, the names of the contributors are anonymous. So as the money pours into states like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana and others, totaling tens of millions of dollars, we have no idea who is bankrolling the race to control the Senate.

What we do know is that outside spending has grown from $52 million in the 2000 cycle to over $1 billion in the 2012 cycle, and likely much more this year. Two years ago, 100 of the richest people in America anonymously gave $339 million to Super PACs. This year, reports indicate, several independent groups are shedding the pretense of “educating” the public in multiple states, and are focusing instead on supporting or opposing a single candidate – all within the Constitution as interpreted by 5 of the Court’s 9 Justices.

It is also interesting to note that in a number of those key races, while the names of the contributors are unknown, the names of the candidates are very familiar, and not simply because they currently occupy seats in the U.S. Senate. In Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and Georgia, Senate seats are held or are being sought by politicians with names made famous by their predecessors.

  • In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich, son of former at-large Congressman Nick Begich, is in a tight race to retain his seat;
  • In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor, son of former Governor and Senator David Pryor, is similarly fighting for his political life.
  • In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall, son of longtime Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, is seeking a second term.
  • In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu, daughter of former New Orleans Mayor (and HUD Secretary) Moon Landrieu, is seeking a third term. Her brother, Mitch, is the mayor of New Orleans, but her service precedes his election.
  • And in Georgia, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is running for dad’s old Senate seat.

Nor are these the only famous offspring on the November ballots, which include such familiar names as California Gov. Jerry Brown (son of Pat), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario), and Georgia gubernatorial wannabe Jason Carter, grandson of former Governor and President Jimmy. Other famous scions serve in the Senate as well. These members of venerable political dynasties include Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey, West Virginia’s Sen. John D. Rockefeller, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (daughter of former Governor and Senator Frank), and New Mexico’s Sen. Tom Udall (son of former Interior Secretary and Arizona Congressman Stewart Udall, and cousin of Mark).

The House of Representatives is overflowing with famous surnames, including two of my former employers whose parents were elected officials, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (father and brother) and George Miller (father and grandfather). Some came to seats that had been immediately occupied by family members, such as Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), both of whom succeeded their spouses. As recently as the 1970s, half of all women in the House had succeeded their deceased spouses, as did a number of appointed women senators including Muriel Humphrey (widow of Hubert) and Elaine Edwards (wife of Louisiana Gov., and current House candidate, Edwin Edwards). Other senators were appointed to capitalize on their family name in efforts to gain or hold a Senate seat including Jean Carnahan (whose husband, Governor Mel, of Missouri, died during the campaign which he won, though deceased).

Democrats seem to have a particular penchant for running familiar names for House seats. Today, those occupying seats previously held by a parent or spouse include Niki Tsongas (MA), Andre Carson (IN), Lacy Clay (MO), John Dingell (MI), Joe Kennedy (MA), John Sarbanes (MD), Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA), and Donald Payne, Jr. (NJ). There are Republicans, too, like Bill Shuster (PA) who inherited not only the seat of his father, Bud, but his gavel as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, too.

Others, like Sam Farr (CA) and Janice Hahn (CA), had famous parents in state legislatures or local government. And Rush Holt (NJ) had a father who served as a senator, although from West Virginia, and decades before his son won a House seat with little benefit from the family name. It also bears noting that, in all likelihood, one surname will continue to hold a House seat following the departure of a famous legislator as Deborah Dingell is running to succeed husband John, the House dean who is retiring after 60 years, having succeeded his father in 1955.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the progeny, siblings, or spouses of officeholders seeking public office themselves. Indeed, our history is filled with Adams’, Kennedys, Bushes, Roosevelts, Tydings, Longs, Harrisons, Lodges, Tafts and many more whose surnames often provided important advantages in their quests for public office. Coming from a family of officeholders often brings with it a respect for the office born of exposure to the rigors and responsibilities that elected office demands. Often, the achievements of the second generation politicians have eclipsed those of their solon ancestors.

It is worth noting, however, that the combination of relying on famous names and the availability of large amounts of money from undisclosed sources represents something other than an ideal illustration of a democracy in action. As noted, bearing a prominent name in no way suggests a lack of qualification for office or predicts underperformance in office. Often, quite the opposite. One would merely hope that voters are selecting candidates independent of familiar names that are promoted by heavy spending from anonymous sources.

There seems no end to the political name game, and even former First Lady Barbara Bush has indicated a desire to see some new names on the bumper stickers and buttons. If either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush (or both) seeks the presidency in 2016, they will perpetuate an astonishing record that has seen a Bush or a Clinton seeking or winning a place on every national ticket since 1980 excepting only 2012. “I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people,” Mrs. Bush noted, suggesting the nation should be able to produce “more than two or three families to run for high office.” The probability is that Mrs. Bush, and we, will likely have to wait some time for that string to be broken.

Are Democrats Sending the Right Message on the Economy?

Let’s stipulate right at the outset: there are too many unemployed Americans (particularly long-term unemployed), wages are stagnant (the typical family is earning what it took home in 1997), and that income inequality has grotesquely grown to Louis XVIth proportions. Economically, it seems fair to say, these days will not be confused with “the best of times,” at least from the standpoint of equity.

It is therefore not surprising that many Democratic politicians and message gurus continue to bemoan the state of the recovery. Their economic prescription emphasizes initiatives to address unemployment, job creation, and improved wages. Having recently spent a few days in economically depressed northern Ohio, I have no doubt the message has some appeal to the electorate.

But I am not convinced it is the right message for Democrats. Unlike the Clinton campaign of 1992 where the rhetoric could be directed against a sitting Republican president, there is currently a Democrat in the White House. Reiterating that the recovery is faltering and that millions remain economically vulnerable reinforces a message of ineffectiveness that inevitably redounds onto the President, who for better or worse, symbolizes the Democratic Party for most voters.

Democrats rightly blame Republicans in Congress for failing to pass a slew of recovery bills like an increase in the minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits and an infrastructure package. But most voters do not ascribe Congress’ failures to the Republican majority in the House; close to half don’t even know the Republicans control the House. So trashing the recovery inevitably reflects back onto the one person voters can hold accountable, and that is President Obama, and that hurts him and Democrats alike.

Now what is particularly odd is that, while less than ideal, there actually is considerable evidence the economy has been improving.  We have added over 10 million private sector jobs during 55 straight months of job growth, 248,000 in September, and over 700,000 jobs in manufacturing, the longest private sector job creation streak in U.S. history. Payrolls are expanding at the fastest pace in 15 years and unemployment dropped below 6% in September, the lowest rate in 6 years. The debt has shrunk by more than half, the investor optimism index is at its highest point in seven years, and the Dow Jones average has nearly tripled since President Obama took office, with barely a hint of inflation. As Obama summarized this week in a speech at Northwestern, “Across the board, the trend lines have moved in the right direction.”

And yet economic anxiety remains high and approval of Obama’s economic record remains mired in the low 40%s, which is very dangerous news for Democratic candidates. As one of my students recently wrote in a research paper, “What’s up with that?”

Of course, the frozen real income of middle class families and the stubborn long-term unemployment belie all the good news, as does the outlandish inequity in wealth concentration. And the persistence of so much bad data invariably dampens the willingness of candidates to tout positive news for fear of seeming oblivious to the negative evidence.

But if no one will take credit for the good news, then one can hardly blame voters for not focusing on much but the bad. A relentless emphasis on a poor economy works to taint the record of the person in the White House, but if that person is your own party leader, and an election is five weeks away, that may not be your best strategy. Moreover, emphasizing the negative inflames voters cynicism about the ability of government to accomplish much of anything, and impugning government is the Republican refrain.

Now to his credit, the President recited favorable economic indicators at Northwestern on Thursday, and he will hopefully continue do so for much of the remaining campaign season. As Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wisely advised yesterday, “He should brag” about the economy, calling on him to “sing his own praises and boast of what he’s done.” So should House Democrats and Democratic candidates, warning that to add anti-government Republicans to congressional ranks will jeopardize the economic recovery by encouraging the obstructionism and unresponsiveness that has characterized the GOP since Obama’s inauguration.

The fact is that virtually everything that has happened policy-wise to facilitate economic recovery is the result of Obama’s executive initiatives or because Democrats in Congress stood together and passed legislation with minimal assistance from Republicans. Left to their own devices, the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for no legislative response – other than further economic sacrifice by the poor and middle class — to the worst economic implosion since the Big One: no TARP stabilization (paid back with interest, thank you), no prevention of the collapse of the auto industry (one million jobs saved, you’re welcome), no stimulus, no health care reform (which has helped achieve drastic reductions in inflation-generating health care costs), no termination of Bush’s obscene upper income tax cut, no unemployment benefit extensions: no nuthin’. Zippo.

The point here is that Democrats, including Obama, need to buck up and tell the American people that while work remains, a lot has been achieved to recover the economy, and that with a Republican Congress, what has been achieved will be jeopardized. Neutering the ability of government to function is no prescription for continued economic improvement. You can’t get that message across if most of what voters heard is gloom and doom. And you can’t successfully disseminate that message through occasional speeches that most voters have no idea occurred. There must be a persistent, aggressive, definitive message that despite the obstructionism and indifference of the Republicans, progress is being made. And if your goal is to address income inequity and the disproportionate influence of mega-money in politics, voters better shake off their lethargy and get to the polls.