JESSICA BADER: Between known patterns working against them (the President’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections; a lousy economy tends to fire up anti-incumbent sentiment) and recent events fueling a bad narrative (Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat being won by a Republican and the ensuing stalemate over health care reform), it certainly doesn’t seem like a good time to be a Congressional Democrat seeking re-election this November. One would think this would be especially true for someone like freshman Representative Tom Perriello.
Perriello won by less than 1,000 votes in 2008, and his district, a predominantly rural portion of Virginia, voted for John McCain over Barack Obama by a 51-48 margin. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a freshman Democrat in this environment would be vulnerable, and a freshman Democrat who voted for the stimulus and for the House’s health care reform and cap-and-trade bills would be toast.
A poll released last week, however, pokes some holes in that conventional wisdom. Aside from showing that the voters of Virginia’s 5th Congressional District are rather stubborn (90% of poll respondents who recall voting for Obama approve of his job performance; 90% of those who recall voting for McCain disapprove), it shows Perriello no worse than tied against any of his potential opponents.
While Perriello has not voted in lockstep with Democratic leadership (he voted for the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the health care bill and against the FY 2010 budget and the House’s financial regulatory reform bill), he has cast what many deemed politically risky votes when the party needed him . Health care reform and cap-and-trade both passed by extremely narrow margins, and Perriello voted against Walt Minnick’s unsuccessful attempt to remove the Consumer Financial Protection Agency from the financial regulations bill, suggesting that his opposition to the overall bill may have been more of a populist this-bill-doesn’t-go-far-enough no vote than a typical conservative Democrat no vote. Rather than shying away from key items on the Democratic agenda, Perriello seems to be voting for what he believes in and making the effort to explain his decisions to his more conservative constituents.
One very important aspect of this poll that must be kept in mind is that it was a poll of registered voters. Many of the polls that have shown bad news for Democrats have been of what the pollster deemed were “likely voters.” It is clear that the conservative base is angry with the policies that Democrats have attempted to advance and will be turning out to vote en masse, and it is highly unlikely that they will be voting for Democrats, even those who tack to the right. The liberal base, disappointed by some of the compromises that have been made to try to move legislation along, will not see much of a reason to vote if those compromises don’t even result in health care reform making it across the finish line. The key for vulnerable Democrats is to recognize that trying to avoid the wrath of the opposing base is futile and to focus on making sure that their own base shows up.
While the fate of health care reform is still up in the air, there are some signs that other Democrats are realizing that taking a stand is the right move. Perriello recently announced that he would be introducing a bill to remove the insurance industry’s anti-trust exemption, a measure that was part of the House’s health care reform bill but was removed from the Senate bill the first time Ben Nelson demanded concessions. His partner in introducing the legislation is Betsy Markey – another freshman Democrat in a district won by McCain, and one who voted the opposite way from Perriello on health care (no on Stupak-Pitts and the overall bill) and financial regulatory reform (yes on the Minnick Amendment and the overall bill).
HOWARD MEGDAL: While Jessica speaks to the efficacy, politically, of the real Democrats, she speaks to what the Democratic Party is likely to be in 2011. Because barring some unforeseen change in wind direction, the Senate Democrats will lose some seats in November. Nevada’s going to be awfully tough, Arkansas too, and several others. The question is: what will that leave in 2011?
The answer: a party far more equipped to tackle legislation, provided they can hold on to at least some kind of majority. And just how that party will look has a lot to do with what Democrats do following the upcoming Health Care Summit.
After all, the post-summit passage of health care is going to be the Democrats going out for a spin in their reconciliation majority. That’s the majority that requires 50 votes plus Vice President Biden, rather than 60. And the policy calculus changes.
Suddenly, the public option is in play. Many of the more progressive parts of the House bill can pass in a reconciliation sidecar that has nothing to do with Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu or Blanche Lincoln. In short, it is a coalition that can accomplish greater things in terms of policy.
Clearly, that will have a galvanizing effect on both the base, hungry for the change they voted for, and moderates, who simply are looking for Democrats to do what they said they would do.
Now picture 2011. A majority of 54-46, for instance, won’t give Democrats even the illusion that they can manage, with some Republican votes, of passing anything. Asking for one has proven to be ludicrous- do the Democrats really think they can get six Republicans on board for anything? The divide isn’t policy-based; it is political. You can’t bridge that with policy concessions.
So the Democrats will turn, as the Republicans did, to reconciliation. And led by a Majority Leader not hamstrung by a purple state, or re-election concerns will be an awfully helpful thing. Let’s say they pick the guy who recruited so well, he managed to give the DSCC back-to-back wave elections: one Charles Schumer. It is time. The man smells an odor and thinks it’s lox. He’s not getting voted out, ever, in New York.
It’s a majority that can grow, too. Once the group starts to get things done, free of the Lincoln/Bayh/Nelson shackles, the DSCC can turn their attention to the natural areas of expansion: Olympia Snowe and Joe Lieberman’s seats in 2012, and Susan Collins in 2014.