Politics

06.24.14

Voters Hate Seniors More Than Crooks; Can Thad Cochran Survive That?

Power in Washington was dictated by seniority for generations. In recent election cycles, politicians are better off violating the law than staying in Congress too long.

If Thad Cochran can manage to hold off an aggressive challenge from Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel on Tuesday, he will be defying recent American electoral history, in which a member of Congress has been more likely to lose reelection if they have chaired a congressional committee than if they have been the subject of an ethics investigation.  

Since 2010, just six of 78 members of Congress under criminal or ethics investigation have lost their elections, according to data maintained by by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. But during that same period, a Daily Beast review of election results showed, nine sitting or former congressional committee chairmen have lost their reelection bids, with Cochran (the former chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Agriculture Committee) in danger of becoming the 10th. 

The trend of powerful chairmen getting the boot from unimpressed constituents exploded in 2010, when Republican challengers stunned Democrats by sweeping out four sitting committee chairmen in November’s Democratic collapse. Despite the veterans’ pitch that they could use their powerful positions for the good of their districts and states, Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James Oberstar, House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton and House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt were all rejected by their voters at home on election night.

That same year, Sen. Bob Bennett, a senior appropriator from Utah, and Sen. Arlen Specter, a former Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, both lost their primaries as their arguments of seniority fell flat for their parties’ base voters who just didn’t want them in office anymore, no matter what strings the senators said they could pull in Washington.

In 2012, Rep. Dan Lungren, the Republican chairman of the House Administration Committee, lost reelection in a newly redrawn California district, while former committee chairmen Sen. Richard Lugar, Rep. Silvester Reyes, and 40-year veteran Rep. Pete Stark were all shown the door. In 2014, Rep. Ralph Hall, the oldest serving member of Congress and former chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, lost in a Texas GOP runoff, even after declaring himself “healthy as a radish.”

It’s true that some of the chairmen might have stayed past their sell-by dates and others had homegrown reasons behind their defeats. But it’s a radically new day in Strom Thurmond’s and Robert Byrd’s Congress when longevity, which was once the currency of power, has become a liability, unknown faces make the best case to change a broken institution, and members of Congress under ethics investigation elicit nothing more than a few days of bad press and a lot of ho-hums from voters back home. 

Unlike those of the committee chairmen of the last four years who could not find forgiveness from their constituents, the C.R.E.W. report details the largely undisturbed careers of members with ethics charges against them since 2010.  

Most, like Rep. Maxine Waters, have denied wrongdoing entirely and forged ahead with their congressional duties. Others, like former Rep. Nathan Deal, resigned from Congress only to be elected to higher office— the Georgia governor’s mansion, in Deal’s case. Even former Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-Ill.) was reelected by voters in 2012 to his seat in Congress while living at the Mayo Clinic, as ethics charges swirled around him. He resigned his seat two weeks later as a criminal indictment loomed. 

In the 2014 cycle, with success in leadership so often leading to defeat at the polls , an unprecedented nine committee chairmen in the House and Senate, some of them term limited by the Republicans' own rules, have announced they will retire at the end of the year rather than try for another reelection. Some, like former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, left even before the year was up.

But Thad Cochran, who would likely resume his post atop the Appropriations Committee if Republicans retake the Senate in November, is not going so gently into that good night. Even until the end, he has made the case to Mississippi voters that, with nearly 40 years of seniority in the Senate, he can do “More for Mississippi” than McDaniel.  In a state beset by poverty, deeply dependent on the defense industry, and still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, the senator is making the now-vintage pitch that Mississippi needs every extra penny Cochran can send its way. 

But McDaniel has tried to flip that narrative, accusing Cochran of being at the helm of the machine that has pumped the federal deficit up to $17 trillion, a sum McDaniel calls nothing less than “immoral.”

Tuesday night will tell the story in Mississippi of whether an old-school approach to legislating, spending and getting reelected is still possible in a post-Tea Party paradigm, or whether Mississippi has joined much of the rest of the country in deciding that for some voters, the only crime that disqualifies a person from being in Congress seems to be the crime of being a member of Congress.