- The Washington Times - Friday, October 15, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

While the Nov. 2 elections will shake up the partisan balance in both houses of Congress, each major party will experience dramatic internal shifts. Democrats face a decapitation of leadership that could be substantial, and the Senate Republican caucus will undergo a substantial shift to the right.

The danger to Democratic leaders is highly unusual. Senior members of Congress are rarely targets of serious challenges. Typically, they have spent a minimum of a decade, often several decades, climbing the ladder, having to weather multiple bad cycles along the way. In the House, senior members have passed through redistricting, which almost universally makes their seats safer.

Nevertheless, as everyone following politics knows, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is in the dogfight of his career. At the same time, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, is all but certain to be defeated; longtime liberal stalwart Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, is a likely casualty; and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, is perilously close to the brink. Earlier this year, Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, who is the senior member on both the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development , announced his retirement in the face of a challenge from his popular home-state governor.

In the House, a number of committee chairmen and other notable members are endangered. Members in severe jeopardy include House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, South Carolina Democrat; House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat; House Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, West Virginia Democrat; and Rep. Rick Boucher, Virginia Democrat, an influential coal-country Blue Dog Democrat.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, announced his retirement this year, apparently concerned about his ability to win re-election in the face of a strong challenge.

Somewhat less in jeopardy but still facing possible risk on Election Day are House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat; House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat; senior House member Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat; and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

What happened? The current mood of the electorate is so negative toward government and incumbents, it is spilling into these safe seats because of the perceived responsibility these leaders bear. Mr. Frank, for instance, is getting a heavy dose of blame for the mortgage/housing crisis because of his involvement with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Mr. Obey, before his retirement, was hammered for his position as chief appropriator in an era when the public thinks spending is out of control.

If Democrats do, in fact, end up losing a number of these leaders, the effect could be mixed, with new blood proving more vital. But the losses will have a definite psychological impact.

For Republicans, a different but no less significant internal shift will occur in the Senate. Certainly, Tea Party-oriented challengers such as Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin or John Raese in West Virginia could have a major impact next year. Perhaps more surprising is the shift among seats currently held by Republicans. When President Obama took office, Republicans held seven Senate seats that most likely will be held by seven significantly more conservative senators in 2011.

In Pennsylvania, longtime moderate Arlen Specter switched parties to sidestep a primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey. He lost in a primary anyway, and Mr. Toomey is heavily favored to win the seat. In Missouri and Ohio, longtime moderates Kit Bond and George Voinovich are likely to be replaced by Roy Blunt and Rob Portman, men who are not exactly Tea Party favorites but nonetheless are clearly more down-the-line conservative than the men they are likely to replace.

In Kentucky, Jim Bunning was a fairly consistent conservative vote, but Rand Paul is favored to win the seat and perhaps set a new standard for economic conservatism in the Senate. In Utah and Alaska, Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski were denied renomination by Mike Lee and Joe Miller, men with strong Tea Party credentials. Although Mrs. Murkowski is seeking to retain her seat through a write-in campaign, Mr. Miller is the favorite. Finally, in Florida, George LeMieux, appointed after fellow moderate-conservative Mel Martinez resigned, seems increasingly likely to be replaced by Marco Rubio, one of the original Tea Party candidates.

This shift by Senate Republicans will put heavy pressure on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in a closely divided Senate, as Mr. Obama and whoever is Senate Democratic leader fight to curtail legislation emerging from a likely Republican House of Representatives.

This “body-snatching” of moderate Republican senators and potential decapitation of senior Democratic leaders are two of the ancillary effects of this year’s unusual dynamics. Together, they could portend an even greater shift in the debate next year.

Loren A. Smith Jr. is an analyst for Capital Alpha Partners, a Washington research firm.

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