Generally, from the time that they are elected, members of Congress turn their attention to the most pressing issues of their districts that, of course, is getting re-elected. Usually that means district earmarks, having their staffs listen to the concerns of their constituents and following up with pre-written issue pieces that have very little to do with their concerns.
This year, especially for those blue dogs in red states, funny things happened to disrupt their usual agenda; tax day tea parties, summer town halls, and a 9/12 rally in Washington. Perhaps the biggest thing to open the eyes of the red state dogs was Election Day, while there were many lessons coming out of this week’s elections, the most hard hitting for those congressmen was that the anger came through in the voting booth. Candidates of both parties were vulnerable because of the “get rid of them all” attitude sweeping America. Just ask Mike Bloomberg, the popular mayor of NYC, who spent 100 million of his own dollars in his reelection bid. Bloomberg won, but by a much smaller margin than expected, because voters were upset that he had his own term limit law vacated so he could run again.
By: Manu Raju and Jonathan Allen
Election Day losses in Virginia and New Jersey have congressional Democrats focused like never before on jobs — their own.
While the White House and party leaders are urging calm, Democratic incumbents from red states and Republican-leaning districts are anything but; Tuesday’s statehouse defeats have left them acutely aware that their votes on health care reform and other major Obama initiatives could be career-enders in 2010 or beyond.
“I should be nervous,” said Rep. Parker Griffith, a freshman Democrat from Huntsville, Ala.
Griffith said the Democratic rank and file is “very, very sensitive” to the fact that issues being pushed by party leaders “have the potential to cost some of our front-line members their seats.”
House Democrats, forced to take a tough vote on a controversial cap-and-trade climate change bill in June, may have to vote as earlier as this weekend on the even more controversial health care bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team have struggled to get moderates on board for that vote, and Tuesday’s results won’t make the task any easier.
“People who had weak knees before are going to have weaker knees now,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a relatively liberal congressman who seemed safe in 2010 but now thinks a Republican challenger might feel emboldened by Tuesday’s election results.
Democratic Sen. Jim Webb — who watched Republican Bob McDonnell and other statewide candidates erase years of Democratic gains in his home state of Virginia — said Tuesday’s results show that Republicans are “energized from what happened last year” but also that “people up here on our side need to get their message straighter, too.”
Party leaders put their best face on Tuesday’s results.
Pelosi, pointing to Democratic House victories in special elections in New York and California, said: “We won last night.”
The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid circulated an analysis arguing that “gubernatorial races are primarily about local issues,” and that it’s therefore “hard to draw any direct comparisons between what happened in New Jersey and Virginia and what will happen in Congress.”
But some Democrats weren’t buying the spin.
“We got walloped,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the junior Democrat from Virginia.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said it was “nonsense” to suggest that the results in New Jersey and Virginia represented a referendum on President Barack Obama. To the contrary, he argued that the results meant that Democrats should redouble their efforts to “make sure we deliver on the promises of the last election.”
But if Tuesday’s results leave red-state Democrats nervous about health care reform, a climate change bill and regulatory reform, it’s going to be harder — not easier — for Van Hollen and his leadership colleagues to develop that record of legislative accomplishment.
And that’s certainly where things seemed to be headed Wednesday. As Pelosi’s office ordered members to stay in town for a possible Saturday night House vote on health care, other Democrats were suggesting that it’s time to take the foot off the gas.
As members came to grips with the election returns, Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.) said he wants “as much time as I possibly can [have] to review both sides and make the best decision I can make” on the health care bill.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a big swing vote for Democratic leaders, said Tuesday’s elections should tell Democrats that their “agenda needs to be patterned towards” the economy.
“People need to be saying slow it down and don’t add more to the deficit,” Nelson said. “And what have many of us been talking about? We don’t want to see anything added to the deficit unless there’s cost containment.”
On health care, Nelson said: “Let’s see coverage extended, … but at what cost?”
Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican to vote for a health care bill, said Tuesday’s results should slow Democrats down on health care — and “certainly gives pause on how you approach things.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who’s threatened to filibuster the health care bill if it isn’t changed before it goes to a vote, said he’s sensing that public fears over the rising national debt “may affect” the Democrats’ broader agenda, noting that there’s been “a very large and quick move of independents” away from the Democratic Party and that public fears of the rising debt are at a “tipping point.”
According to exit polls, Republican gubernatorial candidates took 62 percent of the independent vote in Virginia and 58 percent of the independent vote in New Jersey.
“They’re feeling anxious and they want the government to do something to help them; they’re very worried that we’re going to spend more money,” Lieberman said. “I think one thing it says to me is that whatever we do, we better make damn sure it’s paid for.”
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview that he’s not concerned about next year’s races, calling Tuesday’s results a “mixed bag” that was not the result of Obama’s agenda.
But Menendez added: “We need to be focused like a laser beam on the question of the nation’s economy and the issues of how we best can create jobs. That’s the laser-beam approach. If we do that, we’ll be fine next year.”
Other Democrats said not advancing health care legislation is not an option, with Karin Johanson, a former DCCC executive director, saying it would “be foolish” if Tuesday’s results had a chilling effect on the health care debate.
“I think people have to keep in mind that we will be judged on if we get a good thing going,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.). “I think failure to get anything done will counted as a huge black mark against us, and rightfully so.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said the gubernatorial results said more about Virginia and New Jersey than they did about Congress. But still, she said she is well aware that voters are feeling anxious about what the Democrats are doing on Capitol Hill.
“They’re very concerned about some of the actions that are occurring here in D.C., and we have got to be very sensitive to the fragile economic recovery that’s underway,” she said.