With less than 100 days left to the midterm elections, it's clear that anti-incumbent anger is going to be a bad wind blowing through Nov. 2.
But not all incumbents are created equally weasel-y, and the best way to judge the ones who deserve to be kicked out of Congress is not just by looking at their party affiliation in the voting booth. There is plenty of blame to go around for the hyper-partisanship that's contributing to an escalation of hate with a side order of stalemate—neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice. The Wingnut extremes encourage each other, providing fodder for a cycle of fear-mongering and fundraising.
Not all these characters are in competitive races; after all, the rigged system of redistricting is what enables most of them to avoid forming broad coalitions and winning over the reasonable edge of the opposition.
The House of Representatives is the key battleground of the midterm election. Republicans need 40 seats to take back control, and the smart money spread right now says that between 29 and 50 are seats in play. But just changing the party in control is not going to solve the problem of hyper-partisanship and escalating incivility. Voters have got to take on the people who have made the politics of incitement part of their business plan, with points added for incompetence and unethical behavior.
And so I've created a list of what I'm calling "The Kick 'Em Out Caucus" of 2010. It's an incomplete rogue's gallery. With just one-third of the Senate up for reelection, I've sidestepped that august body, for now—something that shouldn't give the prostitute-procuring, Birther-baiting senator from Louisiana, David Vitter, any comfort. Other candidates for inclusion, like the Castro- praising Rep. Diane Watson, are missing from the list because they wisely opted for retirement or unwisely aimed for higher office. (I'm looking at you, Zach Wamp, for your secessionist talk.)
Not all these characters are in competitive races; after all, the rigged system of redistricting is what enables most of them to avoid forming broad coalitions and winning over the reasonable edge of the opposition. Despite the divisions they deepen in the country, it's possible that most of this list will be reelected—but that's why it's worth calling them out as among the worst members of Congress from a Wingnut perspective. Where possible, I've included a link to their general-election opponent's website, so readers can check out the alternative and consider whether he or she deserves support. With Congress heading out for August recess, it's a constructive way to keep the heat on.
1) Michele Bachmann (R-MN)—The grand prize-winning Wingnut of the 111th Congress by a wide margin, Bachmann's statements range from the intentionally inflammatory to the idiotic. She first rose to infamy in 2008, when she accused then-presidential candidate Barack Obama of harboring anti-American views and suggested a congressional probe to ferret out liberals with anti-American views. Her lowlights are so numerous that a Daily Beast slideshow covered a dozen last May and quickly fell behind her pace. In recent months, she accused President Obama of advancing tyranny and "turning our country into a nation of slaves." But Bachmann's rants helped her raise more money than any other member of Congress in the second quarter of 2010, a feat that underscores one of the primary problems with our politics. Her general-election opponent is Terry Clark, someone who shouldn't have any trouble embodying the famous (and justified) "Minnesota Nice" better than the sitting congresswoman.
2) Steve King (R-IA)—Like a barometer of bad judgment, King manages to embarrass his Iowa constituents and his branch of government every chance he gets. He first came to many Americans' attention in the 2008 election, when he proclaimed that if Obama were "elected president, then the radical Islamists, the al Qaeda, the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11 because they will declare victory in this War on Terror." He raised eyebrows as the only member of Congress not to vote for a resolution acknowledging the use of slave labor in the construction of the U.S. Capitol building. In response to the "day without an immigrant" protests, King wrote an op-ed for his local paper: "The lives of 12 U.S. citizens would be saved who otherwise die a violent death at the hands of murderous illegal aliens each day… Eight American children would not suffer the horror as a victim of a sex crime." And at CPAC, King told gave conservatives an enemies list that lumped liberals in with genocidal dictators like Stalin and Mao. His opponent is tax attorney Matt Campbell, a fifth-generation Iowan from a farming family who was once an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin.
3) Alan Grayson (D-FL)—This freshman made a national name for himself by engaging in the kind of name-calling and bomb-throwing that brought Michele Bachmann to prominence. In a speech on the House floor, he said, "The Republican health-care plan is this: 'Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly." Days later, he attacked Republicans as "foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who think they can dictate policy to America by being stubborn." That was mild compared to what came next: calling Republicans "the enemy of America" and "certainly the enemy of peace." He rounded out the diatribes by calling an aide to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke a "K Street whore" on Hatriot idol Alex Jones' radio show. And Grayson achieved all these milestones within one month, September 2009. In 2010, he earned some unexpected bipartisan bona fides for co-sponsoring an "audit the Fed" bill with Ron Paul. Grayson represents a swing district that voted for George W. Bush twice, and the congressman only won with 52 percent in the high-turnout year of 2008, but thanks to a national Internet fundraising strategy that echoes the Bachmann calculus, he has raised enough money to remain competitive, despite his well-earned reputation for polarization. And a recently tweeted reward of $100 for anyone who punched Grayson in the face might have succeeded in gaining him some sympathy. The Republican field to compete against him is predictably crowded, with the primary still a few weeks away. Leading contenders include former state senate President Daniel Webster, Dan Fanelli, and front-running attorney Todd Long, who a new Zogby poll shows beating Grayson by 46 percent to 38 percent, with a 17-point edge among independents.
4) Louie Gohmert (R-TX)—He's not one of the brightest lights in Congress, but Gohmert has slowly but surely gained attention with a steady stream of silly statements and conspiracy theories. He is a co-sponsor of the Birther Bill and an early adopter of the "kill Granny" arguments against health-care reform, appearing on 9/11 "truther" Alex Jones' radio show to proclaim that "this socialist health care... is going to absolutely kill senior citizens. They'll put them on lists and force them to die early." He also argued against that hate-crimes bill on the House floor: "If you're oriented toward animals, bestiality, then that's not something that could be held against you… which means that you'd have to strike any laws against bestiality. If you're oriented toward corpses, toward children." More recently, he "joked" that the only reason to have the 9/11 terror trial in New York City was if Democrats were "trying to create a new jobs bill by allowing terrorism back in New York." And not to miss out on the opportunity to demagogue the immigration debate, Gohmert raised the specter of Manchurian Candidate-style terrorists brought in as anchor babies, saying, "It appeared that [the terrorists] would have young women, who became pregnant, would get them into the United States to have a baby. And then they would turn back where they could be raised and coddled as future terrorists." The Texas Democratic Party doesn't list any official candidate running against Gohmert, but Charles Parkes III has announced his Quixotic candidacy for the safe conservative seat.
5) Charles Rangel (D-NY)—He's the grand old man of Harlem politics, a legend who's been in office since he challenged the pioneering Adam Clayton Powell in a primary that centered on corruption charges and questions of whether Powell had been in office too long. Now those charges have come back to haunt Rangel, who is facing a congressional ethics trial on a range of substantial offenses, from serially under-reporting taxes, to having four rent-controlled apartments, to soliciting corporate donations to a public-affairs school that bears his name—all conduct unbecoming for a congressman, let alone the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The New York Post has been dogged in uncovering Rangel's offenses, and its investigative work is the reason Rangel is about to fall. He faces four challengers in the September Democratic primary, including the son of Adam Clayton Powell. In the general election, Rangel (or the Democratic nominee, in the unlikely event that he loses) will face the Reverend Michael Faulkner, a former NFL player with the New York Jets turned local church leader, who has written: "Mr. Rangel has come to epitomize what is wrong with Washington today. His gross underpayment of federal income taxes while chairing the House Ways and Means Committee shows the hypocrisy of our Congress."
6) Joe Wilson (R-SC)—He was a little-known but broadly popular South Carolina congressman before he screamed "You lie!" at the president of the United States during a speech to a Joint Session of Congress. Under withering criticism from party leaders like John McCain, Wilson soon apologized, but then awakened to the new rules of politics: the more outrageous the statement, the more the base will rally. Sure, Wilson was formally rebuked by his colleagues, but he quickly became a Tea Party hero, and signs at the 9/12 March on Washington proclaimed "Joe Wilson Told the Truth" and imagined a Palin/Wilson ticket in 2012. Steve King came to his defense, arguing that "The president threw the first punch," calling Wilson "an officer and a gentleman and a patriot," and saying "God bless him… He said what we were thinking." Wilson was no stranger to controversy: The onetime aide to Sen. Strom Thurmond denounced an African-American woman's claim to be Thurmond's illegitimate daughter as a "smear" designed to ruin his reputation, only to have the Thurmond family later acknowledge her truth. And this year, The New York Times found that Wilson had parroted a biotech company's words, evidence of lobbyists' direct influence. In the wake of Wilson's "You lie!" outburst, he raised $1.8 million, while his declared opponent, a Marine Corps veteran named Rob Miller, raised $1.6 million in response. With a resume and fundraising like that, the citizens of South Carolina's beautiful 2nd District might just have a rare competitive race on their hands this fall.
7) Trent Franks (R-AZ)—"An enemy of humanity" who has "no place in any station of government" is how Franks described President Obama at the Wingnut How to Take Back America conference last year. That's about as raw as the politics of incitement get. The passionately antiabortion advocate managed to wade even deeper into moral equivalence misdirection when he compared abortion to slavery, saying: "Today, half of all black children are aborted... Far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today, than were being devastated by the policies of slavery." Franks' chronic foot in mouth disease prompted Phoenix blogger Stephen Lemons to write, "Considering his record for wacky statements, Franks should walk round with a sign that says 'I'm sorry' round his neck. Would save us all a bunch of time." Franks is being challenged again by a former teacher of Choctow descent named John Thrasher, who received more than 125,000 votes in 2008.
8) Laura Richardson (D-CA)—The two-term California congresswoman might be best known for rising from city council to the state assembly to Congress in one year—and for having her home foreclosed on. Defenders could argue that defaulting on house payments six times in eight years makes her a relatable figure during the great recession, but hopscotching among homes in Long Beach, Sacramento, and San Pedro to qualify for different offices isn't exactly a working-class concern. Her neighbors didn't appreciate the chaos caused by her inattention to the properties, one of which was declared a "public nuisance." (Rats were breeding in the trash and neighbors pitched in to mow her lawn.) Richardson was named one of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and an official investigation probed whether Washington Mutual gave the congresswoman preferential treatment when it rescinded a foreclosure on a home she'd purchased with a subprime loan and no money down. This month, she was cleared of wrongdoing, but news of a $20,000 helicopter trip for her staffers to sightsee around Long Beach at taxpayers' expense didn't do much to help her image. She faced three challengers in the Democratic primary and conservative author Star Parker in the general election.
9) Don Young (R-AK)—Out-of-control spending is considered a liberal Democrat affliction, but two of the biggest chronic offenders are Republicans: Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Young. He is the man who gave America the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," which was to have been named "Don Young's Way," and Citizens Against Government Waste has been on his case for years, naming him its Porker of the Month back in April 2007. Tea Partiers can find purpose beyond partisanship in opposing Alaska's sole congressman in this status quo-epitomizing soundbite: "People don't understand that this so-called cry for stopping earmarks, it does not add to the national debt." And anyone angered by the BP oil spill, which should include pretty much all Americans by this point, can find reason to oppose Young after this head-scratching statement: "This is not an environmental disaster, and I will say that again and again because it is a natural phenomenon." Young's Democratic challenger, state legislator Harry Crawford, replied: "The man is an ostrich… He has his head in the sand if he can't see that this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, man-made disaster in history."
10) Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)—There was plenty of competition for the 10th spot on this list, but Jackson Lee's combined record of left-wingnuttery and free-spending fiscal irresponsibility gives her the edge over other contenders, especially when this month's comments on Vietnam are taken into account. During a July 15 speech on the House floor, she reached for a poor historical metaphor for Afghanistan and somehow made it worse: "Today we have two Vietnams, side by side, North and South, exchanging and working," she said. "We may not agree with all that North Vietnam is doing, but they are living in peace. I would look for a better human-rights record for North Vietnam, but they are living side by side." Well, no, Vietnam has been unified since after the war, and it's worth expecting that a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee would know better. The longtime Houston representative also explicitly compared Tea Party protesters to the KKK, and her first foreign trip after Democrats took the majority in 2007 was to visit Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. She has a 3 percent rating—out of 100—from Citizens Against Government Waste. Her urban district is considered a safe seat, even in Texas, though this year she is facing a challenger named John Faulk, who is at least as conservative as she is liberal.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.