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Public Anger Continues to Hammer Congressional Incumbents

February 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As voter polls continue to show a rising tide of resentment for congressional incumbents, Indiana's Evan Bayh became the latest official to announce he will not seek re-election. Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and The Hotline's Amy Walter assess the political mood this campaign season.
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GWEN IFILL: But first: the growing political frustration directed at Washington and from within Washington.

SEN. EVAN BAYH, D-Ind.,: I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress.

GWEN IFILL: After two terms in the Senate, Indiana’s Evan Bayh shocked fellow Democrats yesterday by announcing he wouldn’t run for a third six-year term. His stated reason, he doesn’t like the job anymore.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: There’s just too much brain-dead partisanship, tactical maneuvering for short-term political advantage, rather than focusing on the greater good, and also just strident ideology.

GWEN IFILL: Of all the Democrats running for reelection, Bayh, a senator’s son, who also served as Indiana governor and secretary of state, was among the best-positioned to win. But, without Bayh in the race — he had already raised $13 million and enjoyed an early double-digit polling lead — the seat looks ripe for a Republican pickup in November.

With public hostility toward Washington on the rise, many other lawmakers are also choosing to get out of town. Five Senate Democrats are now vacating their seats, including Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan, Roland Burris in Illinois, and Ted Kaufman in Delaware. Republicans are leaving, too. That party will defend six open seats this fall in Missouri, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Kansas, and Kentucky.

But retirements only begin to tell the story. Incumbent Democrats are at risk in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nevada. The president travels this week to both Nevada and Colorado, where Democratic leader Harry Reid and freshman Democrat Michael Bennet, respectively, are each struggling.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN , R-Ariz.: I fight, and I love a good campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Arizona Senator John McCain, who was the Republican presidential nominee just two years ago, is being challenged, too, this time from his right flank.

Former Congressman J.D. Hayworth:

J.D. HAYWORTH, R, Arizona senatorial candidate: You could say there are two John McCains, the one who campaigns like a conservative and the one who legislates like a liberal.

J.D. HAYWORTH: In fact, when it comes time to debate, I’m going to ask for a third chair, in case both John McCains show up.

GWEN IFILL: McCain jabbed back at Hayworth, who lost his seat in 2006 and is now a talk radio host.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I know, for nearly a year on his radio show, Mr. Hayworth used to attack me in the most disrespectful fashion. So, I would imagine, over time, that we might see a repetition of that.

But the fact is, I’m confident of victory. Our polls show us with 20-point leads. But I’m going to go out — I’m going to go out and earn every single vote. That’s — that’s the only way I know how to campaign.

GWEN IFILL: All over the nation, mainstream candidates have become fresh targets. In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist, once thought a shoo-in for the Republican Senate nomination, is now trailing former state house speaker Marco Rubio.

MARCO RUBIO, R, Florida senatorial candidate: You know that the establishment in Washington is not supporting me, because, to them, this election is nothing more than the opportunity to pick up another seat in the U.S. Senate.

GWEN IFILL: Rubio and candidates like him are picking up support from the Tea Party movement, the fractious coalition of conservative anti-government groups that is taking aim at both parties this fall.

So, how deep does the anger at Washington go? And how will it determine the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections?

For that, we turn to Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, and Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Welcome to you both.

AMY WALTER, editor in chief, The Hotline: Thanks.

GWEN IFILL: So, Stu, is Evan Bayh the tip of the iceberg?

STUART ROTHENBERG, editor and publisher, The Rothenberg Political Report: Yes, I think he reflects a lot of sentiment in — in Washington, but certainly around the country, a sense that Washington isn’t working. Capitol Hill, here we have Democrats with — they had 60 seats, now 59 seats in the Senate, huge 80-seat majority in the House. The White House can’t get anything done. It has got to be frustrating to everybody.

GWEN IFILL: Is it unhappy — is it about incumbency, Amy? Is it just people are so unhappy in a kind of a kind of inchoate way, that they just want to lash out at somebody?

AMY WALTER: In a cosmic sense?

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

AMY WALTER: They’re angry at everything.

I mean, it’s true that establishment means a lot of things in this environment. It means there’s the upset, of course, about corporate America and the banks and — and Wall Street. There’s upset, it seems, at — even at major league sports, right? There is a scandal, it seems, at every moment, whether it’s Major League Baseball and steroids.

And there’s just a sense overall that, I think, big institutions have let us down. And Congress is the easiest place to lash out, obviously because it’s the only place where you can really have an impact. You can’t do much about the fact that the CEO of a Wall Street bank is making millions of dollars and getting big bonuses.

But, if you’re really upset about the direction of the country, you can take it out on Congress.

GWEN IFILL: So, what’s different, though, this time? It feels like — in 1996, a lot of people decided to leave Congress. And midterm elections are known for being upheavals. But it seems that the — it’s the moderates who are leaving, Stu.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think that — I think the results are actually mixed.

I think what you’re seeing on the Democratic side, it’s the moderate Democrats who are going to lose, because they are in more Republican districts. So, they were swept in by the anti-Bush, anti-Republican sentiment in 2006, 2008. Those districts are conservative. They will return back to Republicans.

But what I do think, I think you’re going to see some moderate Republicans win, take over, though, not those same districts, but they will be in the middle now, so that, after the 2010 elections, you will have a larger group of moderate Republicans in the Senate, people like Mark Kirk and Congressman Castle, Mike Castle.

And, even around the country, you’re having some moderate Republicans. And it is just the nature of the cycle. So, Gwen, in 2006, 2008, the Democrats understood they could take advantage in districts that in the past they — they were losing. And now Republicans are taking advantage of different kinds of districts.

GWEN IFILL: So, if the mood is what it seems like, who is more in danger in that same cosmic sense, Republicans or Democrats?

AMY WALTER: Well, Democrats control Congress, and they’re in control of the White House, so, it is their fault.

And I know we have — we have talked about this before, that Democrats are really going to try to reframe this election about a choice, that, actually, it is incumbency in general, and you’re upset at the whole process, and Republicans are part of this process because they’re obstructing, you know, valuable legislation.

But the bottom line is, everybody in America knows who — who really runs the show. And just building on Stu’s point for a minute, I think there’s an overall sense, too, that nobody is really that excited to come back.

It’s one thing if you know, I have a tough fight, and it’s going to be tough to win, but I really want to come back because I think, next year, we are going to be able to get great things done, or I really think being in the majority is important for Democrats.

And the sense that you have right now — and Evan Bayh obviously encapsulated this — was, even if we do win, even if we are in the majority — obviously, they still will have a president of their party in the White House — it really doesn’t matter much, because I don’t think anything is going to get done.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And, to add to that, after 2010, we have another census. Then we have redistricting.

AMY WALTER: Right.

STUART ROTHENBERG: So, a lot of these members say, so, I’m going to run for two more years, and then to have to run in redrawn districts with maybe new voters who don’t know me in still a hostile environment? Because nobody thinks — as Amy says, nobody thinks we’re going to be able to snap our fingers and suddenly deal with these big issues.

GWEN IFILL: We saw the president in the last couple weeks suddenly start to talk aggressively about bipartisanship again. And it seems almost like that there’s two things happening. There are polls that show people really want everybody to get along, and then there’s nobody getting along.

AMY WALTER: They want people — they want somebody to get something done.

I think that we — and the White House is part at fault at that, because they equated bipartisanship with competence. And those are two very different things — or bipartisanship with action.

And, in reality, I don’t think voters care all that much about how many Democrats or Republicans are on a bill. They just want to see that something is happening. And what they have seen, as Stu pointed out, is a year of really nothing happening, nothing happening on the health care front, not a whole lot happening on the jobs front, and then another jobs bill falling through.

And, so, I think, if they — if — if Democrats can just prove that they’re doing something, whether they had Republicans or not wouldn’t really matter.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think one problem is, this will be the third, really, third election cycle in a row where one party runs on change, but they don’t bother to spell out what does that mean.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And so they don’t have an agenda, they don’t have a mandate, they don’t have specifics that, once they’re in, they can go to the Hill and say, OK, this is what the people have said they wanted. They just want change.

GWEN IFILL: I saw this new poll today, which you probably saw, too, that CNN has done in which only 34 percent of the people say they think that Congress should — members of Congress should go back.

Now, normally, we see that. But then we don’t see — but people say like their own member. They don’t like their own member so much this time.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And, actually, these numbers are worse in, no, my own member doesn’t deserve reelection, and, no, all members of Congress don’t deserve reelection, much worse than ’94. So, we’re seeing even more…

GWEN IFILL: We know — remind people what happened in ’94.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, we had a — we had a real Republican wave there, where Republicans won something like — I don’t remember — 52 House seats and took over the House and the Senate. And it was just a bloodbath.

And, obviously, there are some Democrats who are worried about that. I think Amy is exactly right. Right now, there is kind of a generalized sense of, we don’t like — Washington isn’t working. We don’t like anything that the politicians are doing. And they’re not doing anything.

But the Democrats are at much greater risk, because, ultimately, we’re going to hit October, and the voters are going to be thinking about a general election, not just primaries.

GWEN IFILL: So, are there more shoes to drop, Amy?

AMY WALTER: Well, we are, believe it or not, very early in the season.

Now, especially when it comes to the House for recruiting season, filing deadlines have only closed in five states. So, we still have, you know, a lot of states still left to go. There are a lot of people looking at one more senator, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. The filing deadline in that state is in March. She has said she’s definitely running.

But there are a lot of people wondering, well, based on what happened with Evan Bayh — she and Evan Bayh have a sort of similar track record in terms of their desire to be seen as centrist — her poll numbers much worse than Evan Bayh’s.

But then we look at all these House races as well, where you have a lot of members who already have decided to pack it in. Maybe they’re holding off right now, hoping that things are going to look better as we go down the road. But, if they don’t, it’s hard to see that a lot more of them won’t decide to not run again.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Stu? I know Republicans are getting very excited. They think the majority might be within reach in the Senate.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, there are going to be more retirements — I’m quite confident of that — as we get in the year.

And Amy is right. I mean, there’s still a lot of members who are going to decide — you know, they’re keeping their options open. Or maybe they have even decided to retire, but haven’t yet announced it. And both parties are trying to orchestrate some of these announcements.

It’s going to be a very good Republican year. I don’t see 10 seats in the Senate yet. But seven or eight is not an unreasonable number. That’s a big number. That would dramatically change Capitol Hill. And, in the House, you know, I’m at 24 to 28 House seats, and I expect to go up. I think the Republicans are going to have quite a good year.

GWEN IFILL: Your numbers are about like that?

AMY WALTER: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, I think we’re going to see that Republicans pick up something like six to eight seats in the Senate. Again, you get not the majority, but they shave it down significantly. I agree with Stu’s numbers on the House. And a lot of that is going to depend on how many more of these retirements are left.

And it really is — it’s interesting. You see Republicans now talking about, well, we need a contract With America, so we don’t get into those problems that Stu pointed out, that, if we do win back the majority, what do we do with it?

The problem, of course, that Democrats have found — and Republicans will find the same thing is — the more diverse your caucus, the larger the caucus, the more difficult it is to come up with one set of ideas, to be able to put that through.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like, every single week, there’s another shoe dropping. We will be talking to you about the next one.

Thank you both very much.

AMY WALTER: Thanks.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.