House chairmen in jeopardy
By RICHARD E. COHEN
In congressional cloakrooms, an old joke is that everyone responds or salutes when someone asks for “Mr. Chairman.” But on the campaign trail these days, a similar call might cause a run for cover.
Known for their seniority in Washington and their political security at home, several House committee chairmen are suddenly on the campaign firing line, a sign that the Republican playing field now extends well beyond the typically vulnerable freshman Democrats and into the most powerful committee offices of the House.
At last count, at least six old bulls were facing a serious reelection challenge, with several polling below 50 percent. That means Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank is having to sweat it out in Massachusetts, and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton is running his closest race in years in rural Missouri. Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt is in the race of his life in South Carolina, and the usually safe Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall of West Virginia is a new target for Republican attack ads.
Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, dean of the House delegation and 54-year veteran of the chamber, had to put out a humble statement last month, asking Democrats to max out on donations — even though he leads by double digits.
New targets seem to emerge weekly. The latest is Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar of Minnesota, who oversees billions in highway funding. The Duluth News Tribune on Monday published a poll that gave Oberstar a 3-percentage-point lead at 45 percent to 42 percent — putting the Minnesota veteran below the critical 50 percent threshold.
In many cases, these chairmen have become symbols of the unpopular House majority — even if they aren’t necessarily in tossup seats.
“Sure, they want to get me because I’m the Budget Committee chairman,” Spratt told POLITICO. “That’s the way to denounce our whole budget. I’m a high-value target, and I understand that.”
Most of these chairmen will most likely survive reelection — and some may win comfortably. But the fact that they are even nervous shows just how treacherous the environment is for Democrats.
And their newly intense campaigning also has a trickledown effect: These chairmen usually raise a ton of money and distribute it to vulnerable rank-and-file members. Now, the old bulls are keeping more of the money in their own districts.
The political climate already led Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey of Wisconsin and Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon of Tennessee to retire rather than face a stiff reelection challenge. Gordon’s seat is a virtually certain Republican pickup, and the contest to succeed Obey is a tossup.
Each of these eight lawmakers has served at least a quarter-century in the House. With the occasional exception of Spratt, none has received a serious challenge in many years, if ever.
GOP campaign officials contend that the chairmen face unusual vulnerability this year because of the campaign’s national focus. Having been part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s legislative team, they now find it difficult to distance themselves from controversial players and issues.
“At one time, these Democrats were able to get by on the politics of personality and convince voters that the national party label didn’t apply to them. After becoming the driving forces behind the Obama-Pelosi agenda, they are now the powerful symbols of an out-of-touch Congress,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain
Yet even as the NRCC dabbles in the chairmen’s districts, none of the gavel holders are listed in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” program for vulnerable incumbents.
In Missouri, Republican challenger Vicki Hartzler has criticized Skelton for running on little more than his chairmanship.
“We respect that he chairs the Armed Services Committee. We get that,” said Hartzler press secretary Steve Walsh. “But other issues need to be addressed, including the need to find jobs.”
Hartzler also attacked Skelton for supporting Pelosi on 95 percent of key votes, despite his late decision to oppose the health reform bill.
“San Francisco already has one vote in Congress. It doesn’t need ours,” Walsh said.
If any of these chairmen lose on Nov. 2, it would require a historic upset.
House chairmen have a history of safe districts and political invincibility, even in tough times. In 1994, when Democrats lost 54 House seats, three chairmen were among the victims: Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who had been indicted five months earlier; Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). In that GOP sweep, House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) also lost in a stunning upset.
When Democrats lost big in 1980, the only chairman ousted was Al Ullman (D-Ore.) of the Ways and Means Committee. In both cycles, the ousted Democrats were the victims of late, unexpected surges.
Similar dynamics appear to be in play this year. The opponents to Dingell, Frank and Oberstar have barely registered in the House Republicans’ “Young Guns” challengers program and aren’t among the roughly 80 most-touted GOP candidates on the NRCC website.
On their campaign websites, these GOP newcomers emphasize their commitment to the Constitution and offer broad prescriptions with few attacks on their opponents or other leading Democratic figures.
Even if these chairmen survive for another term, Republicans will chalk up some success in curtailing the substantial cash that committee chairmen typically deliver to party coffers — and they will have shown the next round of hopefuls in 2012 that these old bulls can be challenged.
And those who return after Nov. 2 for another term may also feel further inducement to retire after their next term. That may become an especially strong factor for aging members — including Dingell, Frank and Skelton — in states that will lose a seat in redistricting next year and those where incumbents must introduce themselves to many new voters.
“Facing redistricting, many senior Democrats will retire in 2012, if we do things right,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who voiced confidence that he will become the energy committee chairman in January.
In addition to the committee chairmen, several Democratic chairmen of influential House subcommittees face serious reelection jeopardy.
They include Reps. Chet Edwards of Texas, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies; Rick Boucher of Virginia, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet; Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance and Government Sponsored Enterprises; and Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.In the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is facing an unusually stiff challenge. And Blanche Lincoln — whose control of the agriculture committee would usually mean something to Arkansas — is trailing by double digits, a sign that even Senate chairmanships, which take years to achieve, may not matter to voters back home.