Midterm Elections and the Changing Political Atmosphere

It’s no secret the 2014 midterm election cycle will be a political blood bath featuring high profile primaries and general elections.  Many prominent members of Congress are not only facing stiff competition from the other party, but difficult primaries from their own as well.  Key members of Congress have also announced their retirements and stunned many in the punditry opening the doors for more high stakes elections.  Many of these candidates were locks for reelection but their retirement signals potential doom for their party and the number of seats they control.  One take-away from the high number of retirements is a shift in the political parties and atmosphere in Washington today.  The parties are much different than they were years ago and these retirements may lead to an even greater shift in Congress.

For example, the Tea Party has really shaken up the Capitol.  It has split the Republican Party and was the driving force behind a 17-day government shutdown with radicals from the right dictating policy with virtually no reprisal from their constituents because they live in highly insulated districts.  Congressman Buck McKeon (R-CA), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, announced his retirement this year and stated the Tea Party was partially to blame.  In the last three years, the Tea Party has also offered a response to the president’s State of the Union speech along with the typical Republican response.  The Tea Party has made Speaker John Boehner’s life very difficult.  Some point to his lack of authority in the party trying to unsuccessfully reign in this rogue wing of his caucus.

Legislation is stalled in Congress and the gridlock has frustrated many inside and outside Washington.  In this past November’s race for Governor in Virginia, candidates tried to distance themselves from the party establishment in Washington.  The government shutdown significantly hurt Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli as he tried to disassociate himself from the national Republican Party.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has often stated that New Jersey is not like Washington and notes how he, a Republican governor in a very blue state, has been able to work across the aisle to get things done.

The gridlock in Washington has led to members’ retirement.  Even before this cycle of elections, Tea Party darling Jim Demint, former senator from South Carolina, retired after President Obama won reelection to head the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.  Demint has much more influence at Heritage than he ever did in Congress because at Heritage, he is able to dictate the Party’s agenda.  From gun rights to abortion, Demint’s Heritage Foundation issues harsh reprisals for any member to defies their agenda vowing to fund and back primary challengers.  Other outside influences include Grover Norquist who is president of Americans for Tax Reform.  Many members of Congress singed a pledge circulated by Norquist that they would not raise taxes under any circumstances. 

Recently, Senator David Vitter (R-LA), announced he will run for governor in Louisiana.  He would be succeeding another high profile conservative, former Republican Governor Association Chairman, Bobby Jindal who is term limited.  As The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus stated on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” this week, being a governor is more attractive than being in congress right now.  What she means is that due to the gridlock in Washington, it is up to the states to get legislation moving.  This move is a no-brainer for Vitter because he can run with no risk since his congressional term is not up until 2016.  Roll Call recently commented on an article in the New York Times about one-party domination in all but 13 state governments.  Roll Call notes of the piece by Nicholas Confessore that, “almost every one of the 23 states totally dominated by Republicans has passed new restrictions on abortion, made it harder to vote, refused to expand Medicaid as part of Obamacare, moved to limit the power of unions, and barred same-sex marriage.”

Democrats face the same problem with candidates who seem to be too progressive.  Republicans lamented about new Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s agenda.  Although it seemed like McAuliffe is willing to compromise and work with Republicans, they feel he is forcing issues such as Medicaid expansion down their throats.  New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inauguration speech was highly criticized as one of the most progressive speeches ever.  Many democrats applauded de Blasio’s speech and called for more progressives in national elections.

There is no question the political landscape is changing.  This week, NBC’s Luke Russert stated that Boehner may not last as speaker after 2016 because most of his friends are leaving Congress.  Russert went on to state that Boehner and his colleagues used to go out frequently for drinks but now, all members want to do is fundraise.  This lack of unity between members of Congress does not bode well because in the old days, many members would bond over drinks.  In the current atmosphere of outside influence and high stakes races, fundraising is far more important in order for members to keep their seats.

Outside groups and state legislatures seem to be the best option for many members of Congress.  These outside groups hold much more influence and can control members of their party.  The political atmosphere is changing and not for the better.  Money now dominates politics and many members fall victim to outside influence for fear of being primaried.  With earmark reform, members are now barred from promising funding for certain pet projects in return for votes.  While some viewed earmarks as corrupt politics, there is no doubt it spurred movement and legislation as well as funding for projects in home districts.  Now we live in an atmosphere of miniscule production where groups such as The Heritage Foundation call the shots.  The 2014 midterms are extremely important and with the possibility of a swath of new members, Congress may face an even greater shift.  Legislating out of fear is endangering the very fabric of our democracy.