With Congress’ approval ratings hovering near historic lows, one would expect an anti-incumbent mood to infect the nation this fall.
And it may happen. It might even sweep President Obama from the White House.
But a Congressional "house cleaning" will have a hard time expressing itself on Capitol Hill since seven out of eight House districts are essentially one-party duchies, where the dominant party, whomever its candidate, wins reelection with anywhere from 55 to 75 percent of the vote.
A new political action committee claims it is trying to upend that scenario. Campaign for Primary Accountability, a Super Pac funded by a group of conservative-leaning businessmen, is pumping money into primaries in districts where entrenched incumbents will face only token opposition in the fall. Their goal is to use the primary process to unseat unpopular sitting Congressmen or those whom in their view deserve to be unpopular. “We’re not partisan or ideology driven,” said Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the group, which has already amassed a $2 million war chest, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Whether the Super Pac is in fact bi-partisan or merely a tactical gambit to gain control of Congress is open to question. Backers include Leo Linbeck, a Texas construction mogul associated with conservative causes like lower personal taxes; and Omaha billionaire Joe Ricketts, who founded TD Ameritrade and helped finance Taxpayers against Earmarks. “We pick our targets based on polling that shows they are unpopular and have been given a free ride,” Ellis said.
Their initial races included unsuccessful support for the quixotic candidacy of antiwar Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who lost his seat through redistricting and was thrown into Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s district, which she has represented for 15 terms. They also are backing a left-of-center populist challenger to Democratic Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, who has served eight terms representing the El Paso border region. Wins by leftwing challengers in those districts could turn relatively safe Democratic seats into toss-ups.
The group’s big win came on Super Tuesday’s Ohio Republican primaries when they threw their support behind Brad Wenstrup, an Iraq veteran and surgeon who successfully challenged Rep. Jean Schmidt for her ultra-safe Cincinnati seat. The seat was ultra-safe because it goes to whoever wins the Republican primary, which in this case was the Tea Party-backed Wenstrup.
In yesterday’s Alabama primary, the CPA attacked Rep. Spencer Bachus, the ethically challenged chairman of the powerful House Financial Services committee. Bachus rakes in huge campaign contributions from the banking industry and faces a House ethics probe over his alleged insider trading after getting a private briefing on the state of the financial sector from then Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson in 2008. “He shorted the country,” fumed Ellis.
The Winter, Spring and Summer of Our Discontent
Polls show there is a broad stream of unhappiness coursing through the American electorate this election year. President Obama’s own polling numbers are sinking again despite solid jobs reports in recent months and mounting evidence from the stock market and other indicators that the economy, which will be the dominant issue in the fall, is on the mend.
But with gasoline prices surging toward $4 a gallon or beyond in most areas of the country, the president is clearly finding it difficult to build momentum. The Republicans, who could lose control of the House if popular discontent morphs into a throw-all-the-bums-out mindset, are doing everything they can to focus anger over rising gas prices on the president alone. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are circling the wagons and painting Republicans as obstructionists who want to protect the wealthy one percent, and who care little about average Americans, the environment, and educational innovation.
“The mood among voters right now is a rebuke of the anti-energy and anti-business agenda being pursued in Washington,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. “Any incumbent who has been supporting that agenda should be scared, particular President Obama and House Democrats.”
But Democratic pollsters point out that control of the House will hinge on what happens in the 60 swing district seats that were captured by conservative Republicans in the low turnout 2010 election. Virtually all of the other 375 districts, as Americans for Primary Accountability likes to point out, will not be in play.
“The Republicans are going to bear the brunt of anti-incumbent sentiment because they have 50 of the 60 swing districts,” said Andrew Baumann, vice president at Greenberg Quinlan & Rossner, a Democratic polling firm. “A lot of these (one-term) incumbents are still running as Tea Party candidates. They’re not governing or running as people who plan to stick around for a long-time.”