Friday, February 27, 2009

The State of the Conservative Movement--The Battle Between Purity & Pragmatism

Like John, I was at Tuesday's press conference by David Keene of the American Conservative Union, built around the release of their 2008 ratings of Congress and a preview of this weekend's CPAC conference. While perusing the ratings guide prior to Keene's remarks, I focused in on those members who received a perfect "100" rating from the ACU. As John noted, the ACU selects a handfull of votes in a given year, equates one side of that vote with the "conservative" position, and tabulates each member's vote over all the votes in their sample. Thus, each member is arrayed along a continuum of liberal to conservative. This year, 31 Republican House members received the magic 100.

In looking at those 31 members I immediately asked myself if there was anything that linked these members together--region, district composition, level of seniority, electoral safety, etc. The second question I asked was how these members--and their number (31)--compare to earlier Congresses. In other words, did 2008 have more pure conservatives and what might this tell us about how Congress has changed. Fortunately, ACU has posted their rankings for the past thirty odd years, allowing for some further exploration.

There's one caveat we must deal with first. Rankings like these suffer from a number of methodological problems. The most fundamental one is that because each year looks at different votes--dealing with different issue areas--making meaningful temporal comparisons is difficult. Its an apples to oranges dilemma. While the ACU says that they try to find a good cross section of votes across a range of issue areas, looking at each year's sample shows a wide disparity. Another problem is that not all votes are the same, even within a year's sample. Some votes might be more likely to produce one outcome over another. In this year's sample, for example, two votes (SCHIP and Farm Bill) were veto override votes. In a vote of this type one would assume that members would be under more pressure than normal to vote with their party, thus--for Republicans--making it more likely that they would cast the "conservative" vote. So, in short, we need to take these rankings with a big grain of salt. Another thing I will note is that focusing just on those members who receive a perfect score from the ACU might emphasize a distinction without a difference. In other words, how different is a member with a score of 95 from one with a score of 100?? Having said this, what do we see?

Again, this year 31 House Republicans received a perfect 100 score. Geographically, a few--mostly southern--states dominate the ranks. Georgia and Florida each produced 5 members. Next was California with 4 and Texas with 3. Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina had 2 members each with 1 member coming from Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Utah. While this "southernness" dimension may speak to the increasingly southern composition of the House Republican ranks, a more appropriate explanation may lie with the redistricting process. States such as Georgia, Texas, California, and Florida all have had very robust gerrymandering episodes in recent years. In fact, this recent study by Avencia Inc. which studied this process, listed GA, PA, OH, NJ, and CA as 5 of the 10 most gerrymandered states in the country. So we need to look at these members district by district.

To further explore this, I next looked at the competitiveness of these members' recent campaigns. One would expect the most conservative members (as with the most liberal) to have easy re-elections, especially if they come from very favorably drawn districts. At left is a simple spreadsheet that looks at these 31 members and their four most recent elections (except for those members who have been elected fewer than 4 times). One thing that immediately jumps out (and which I picked up on when first looking at the list) is that 2 of these members were defeated in 2008--Steve Chabot in OH-1 and Tom Feeney in FL-24. Also of note is the poor performance of Michelle Bachmann in MN-6 who managed to win despite receiving just 47% last year. The fate of these members in particular raises the fundamental question of this post--How do members straddle the dual pressures of ideology and pragmatism?? If one's district is becoming less and less conservative, does one change their behavior in order to stay in office?? In looking at these members over the years one can see how several have seen their margin of victory decline. Others, we should note, have seen relatively stable levels of support or increased margins of victory even in the face of two consecutive election cycles highly unfavorable to Republicans. This might be further proof of a gerrymandering effect. At the bottom of each column I provide the average vote of these members for each year. One sees the degree to which the last 2 cycles decreased the performance of even these most staunchly conservative members.

Next, we can look at the prevalence of these "perfect conservatives" over time to give a sense of whether or not some broader, more systemic, changes might be taking place. While I didn't look at the ACU ratings for each year, I did pull out their scores for 1974, 1984, and 1994. Election years tend to produce higher degrees of partisanship within Congress as both parties jockey for electoral advantage. I also picked these years because they represent both presidential ('84) and midterm ('74 & '94) elections as well as years with a Republican in the White House ('74 & '84) and a Democrat ('94). So we've got a good cross section of political contexts and governing arrangements to look at. In all of these years, though, I'd note that you had Democratic majorities in the House (more on that in a minute). What do we see in terms of the number of members receiving perfect scores from the ACU??

In both 1974 and 1984 9 House Republicans received a perfect rating--roughly 30% of 2008's total. Thus, we may have some evidence of a more moderate Republican caucus during that era. This would seem to jibe with much of the literature on partisanship in Congress which discusses not only increased partisan voting in recent years but also the changing composition of the membership over time. Of the members in the '74 & '84 classes, only 4 hail from southern states (1 each from GA, LA, TN, and TX). Compare that with the 5 Georgians, 5 Floridians, 3 Texans, and 2 North Carolinians in 2008's class. During these early Congresses you still had a sizable number of Southern Dems. whose voting record would be a mixed bag in the ACU's estimation.

1994 is the year where we seem to see these changes in partisanship and member composition materialize in greater conservatism. In that year 46 House Republicans received a perfect rating from the ACU. What might we conclude from this?? A few things, I think. 1994 was the one year in this quick examination that saw Republicans facing a Democratic President. Thus, being in the minority in Congress and up against a partisan adversary in the White House pushed the House Republican caucus in a more ideologically cohesive and rightward direction. With little chance of winning votes, attention turned toward obstructionism. What we also know is that the election that year brought the Republicans into the majority. This is where things get a little interesting. As a result of the '94 election the Republicans gained 52 seats in the House. We would expect, then, that the number of members with a perfect ranking from the ACU would go up as a result. With many more members plus very little turnover in the existing membership (i.e. few R's in office in '94 but not '95) how could they not go up?? Well, they didn't. When we look at the ACU ratings for 1995 we see that only 33 House Republicans got a perfect score. What happened??

What happened is that the Republicans became the majority and becoming the majority entailed a different set of responsibilities in terms of governing. Simply stated the tradeoff between ideology and pragmatism became more pronounced. In order to pass legislation--and get it signed by a Democratic president--members were forced to make compromises and thus dilute the ideological purity of their policy preferences. Any examination of this period of the Clinton presidency will note the delicate dance that the Clinton White House and the Republican Congress engaged in to try and get things done. If you look at the '94 and '95 classes of those with perfect ratings, several of the '94 class weren't present in '95. 18 of the 33 for 1995, in fact, were freshmen members--those most radicalized as a result of the '94 campaign. More senior members--those most responsible for getting legislation passed as committee chairs for example--were more likely to compromise their ideology in order to pass legislation.

Thus, as conservatives hit Washington this weekend for a mixture of pep rally and rebuilding session, they must grapple with the competing demands of their ideology and quest for power. While David Keene and others in the movement would note that "conservative" and "Republican" are not necessarily synonymous (he was very critical of George W. Bush, for example), the realm of practical politics requires figuring out how to get enough votes to win. Did Republicans lose because they were too conservative or not conservative enough?? How does this jibe with the direction the country is moving demographically, economically, and socially?? More fundamental to some conservatives--What good is winning if the result is a retreat from one's principles?? How these questions get answered will go along way toward explaining our politics in the future.

***Watch streaming video of CPAC here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bunning's Bluegrass Blues

Fresh on the heels of their gains over the past two cycles, Democrats are looking to an elusive Senate seat in Kentucky as an opportunity to finally get to the magic 60 seat--filibuster proof--majority. Their target is the irascible and intemperate (and Hall of Fame former major league pitcher) Jim Bunning. Despite Kentucky's reliable Republicanism in recent presidential races, Bunning has always been a lackluster campaigner and performer. With a reputation for making things, perhaps, harder for himself than they should be--in his last race he said that his challenger, and current Lieutenant Governor, looked like "one of Saddam Hussein's sons," Bunning managed to again get himself in hot water this past week. At a local GOP meeting in Kentucky, Bunning noted that a Supreme Court nomination was likely because of Justice Ginsburg's recent cancer diagnosis and operation. In his words, "Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live."

If this weren't bad enough, Bunning has managed to get into a sniping contest with current Republican Senatorial Committee Chair John Cornyn. Unsure of the party's loyalty, Bunning has threatened to sue the NRSC should they back a primary opponent against him (see coverage here and here).

All of this might not be much of a big deal if Bunning enjoyed widespread popularity in the state, had a massive campaign war chest in place, and could count on previous big victories to deter a serious challenge. Unfortunately, he enjoys none of these. In his previous two Senate races he has never reached 51% of the vote. His nailbiter of a re-election in '04 (50.7% to 49.3%) took place at the same time George Bush won Kentucky with 60% of the vote. In 1998, despite having won 7 terms to the House, he managed to win by just 6,000 votes. His campaign committee, as of now, reports just $150,000 in the bank--hardly an intimidating amount. In this environment, Dan Mongiardo, aka "one of Saddam Hussein's sons" has already announced his plans to challenge Bunning again.

At left, compare the maps from the '04 presidential and senatorial races (Dem. counties in red, Rep. in blue). Bush's success was much more widespread than Bunning's. While this can certainly, to
some degree, be attributed to the lukewarm reception John Kerry received in the state, Bunning supporters must nonetheless be nervous.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Goldwater Girls Gone Bad: Can the ACU's Cong. Honor Roll Really Make Them Right in Their Heart Again?

The American Conservative Union issued its 2008 congressional scorecard today. Both of’s editors showed up at the Nat’l Press Club, and grabbed hard copies of the ratings. It’s a good thing we stopped by; the ratings are yet to be available online, though the site has a deep archive dating back to 1971 that looks like it a offers a fascinating peek at the changes that have occurred in Congress since then, and how the conservative movement looks at the institution and its Members.

One of the “NPC Newsmaker” events the Club holds regularly, the press conference was sparsely attended, and among those who couldn’t fill up the smaller Murrow Room, there seemed to be as many or more conservative movement/activist types on hand as journalists. No surprise, considering the “Newsmaker” was ACU president David Keene, a movement veteran, and the NPC advertised that he would “discuss the state of conservative activism following the 2008 elections” and hype CPAC, this weekend’s ACU-sponsored young Republican tent revival.

The yawn that greeting this year’s ratings – nobody from Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, CQ, NattyJo, etc. were recognizable in the seats – might be attributable to the trend, distinct since the ’94 Republican takeover, that’s seen more ideological cohesiveness among Members in both parties in both chambers.

Keene conceded that “the real change in America is, of course, demographic,” in parrying what the conservative activist questioner thought was a softball he lobbed at him. No, it wasn’t all that anti-immigrant haranguing that scared Hispanics away from the Republican brand, even rejecting John McCain and his solid open borders credentials in bigger numbers than G.W.’s slide from 2000 t0 2004. It was just message; a failure to communicate and appeal to the natural social conservatism of the bulk of Hispanic voters.

Keene’s prescription: just reiterate more emphatically – or, in his view, return to, after the Bush Administration’s various apostasies – a core Republican message that is disseminated more efficiently and effectively by harnessing new media. (À la Anuzis: Twitter to the kids more!) And the ACU’s, and CPAC’s, role, of course, is to inspire the conservative base to make sure Republicans in Congress adhere to that philosophy.

So, started breaking down how many of those Members the ACU deemed sufficiently devoted to Reagan’s legacy hailed from its Southern and Great Plains regional rumps, but gave up halfway. Certainly more of the “wets” hailed from the Northeast. Maine’s stimulus-saving Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins clock in with a 12 and 20, respectively, and fmr. Conn. Rep. Chris Shays, New England’s last Wooly Mammoth (read: House Republican) could only muster a 32. Similarly anomalous is fmr. Rep. Robin Hayes of No. Carolina, who shifted to the left on economics in an effort to hang on in his CD of shuttered textile plants after an unexpected nail biter in ’06 and scores a mere 48.

But with three-quarters of the 110th Congress’ House Republican Conference scoring 80% or higher in agreement with the ACU position on the roll call votes they rate, the “honor roll” is basically reflective of the Conference at-large. (Of course, it’s tempting to be selective with which votes are selected, to reward friendly Members and not alienate influential committee chairs, etc. Democrats made so many gains in 2006 and 2008 that they now boast a caucus more diverse than any Congress since before ’94, which might make the Americans for Democratic Actions’ – the ACU's liberal inverse – ratings more telling after the 111th first session. Nevertheless, the ADA’s 2008 ratings are about as unilluminating as the ACU’s.)

So, let’s take Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), whom Keene dubbed the “smartest guy” in the House GOP Conference; a stalwart exponent of the message he’s advocating. Ryan’s CD flipped in ’08, when Obama captured 51% even as Ryan was reelected with nearly two-thirds of the same electorate. (Bush bested Kerry 53%-46% here four years before.) So, Ryan held on, a rare case vindicating Keene’s strategy.

One state to the south offers a starker contrast. Republicans are salivating over a potential special election for embattled Sen. Roland Burris’ Illinois Senate seat, once held by Obama himself. Two Republican U.S. Reps. from neighboring suburban Chicago districts are staring down each other for the GOP nod: reliable Republican Peter Roskam (ACU ’08 rating: 96) and perennial target of conservative ire Mark Kirk (ACU ’08 rating: 48). Considering that GOP primary electorates remain very conservative, even in Blue States, Roskam would be favored at first blush.

While the main counties in both Members’ CDs – Lake Co. in Kirk’s; DuPage Co. in Roskam’s – saw a dramatic shift to Obama, like affluent, educated suburban locales nationwide, these counties are remarkable even given that the trend here may be over-pronounced due to Obama’s Favorite Son status. These counties have been so reliably Republican that even “homegirl” Hillary Rodham Clinton was a Goldwater Girl here back in ’64.  But HRC followed a trajectory now familiar among women of her generation who hail from the Collar Counties: product of a conservative, upwardly-mobile Republican household goes off to an elite institution of higher learning (say, Wellesley) and graduates with an even higher earning potential and the de rerigueur decidedly liberal politics that ascending in those circles demands.  To smarting conservative Republicans: Goldwater Girls Gone Bad.

While Roskam increased his reelect margin from ‘06, and Kirk held steady, could Roskam’s more rigid conservatism win in Lake Co., now much more Democratic? It’s more plausible that Kirk’s more malleable positions could take DuPage as well as Lake and dig into Democratic margins in Red County Lincolnland.  Can Roskam's unwavering conservatism, more than Kirk's more moderate stands, really bring those Goldwater Girls Gone Bad back into the fold?

If Illinois’ political melodrama plays itself out, we may get a test of Keene’s strategy soon.


A parting thought: it should be noted that the most salient issues that divide moderate and conservative, suburban and rural Republicans remain those explosive cultural issues. Not a single so-called “social issue” roll call vote merits a rating by the ACU in ’08, save for a vote on benefits to “illegal” immigrants.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How Important is the Urban Vote and What Does the Furture of Urban America Look Like???

Two recent articles about the nature of urban America and urban voting caught my attention. The first, in the recent Esquire by Nate Silver of looks at the 2008 election through the prism of urban/suburban/rural voters. Its pretty straightforward stuff, showing that not only did Obama win the urban vote (as expected) but that he did so with such margins that his deficits in rural areas were rendered meaningless. 2008 also saw Obama win the suburbs, the first Democrat to do so since Clinton. What is of interest here is not the numbers, per se, but the trends. Recent demographic data shows an America that is becoming increasingly suburban and urban. Whereas the 1960's and 70's saw the phenomenon of "white flight" out of the cities, much of that movement is being reversed. While the big cities are still not as large as they were during their industrial boom times, there is reason to wonder whether a "re-urbanization" is underway and ask what is driving it.

The second article on this topic is by Richard Florida in the March issue of The Atlantic. In looking at the potential ramifications of the current economic crisis on our country's urban landscape, Florida wonders what changes will be brought about--how will Detroit fare? Whither the Sun Belt? How does the type of work done in a particular place affect its current health and its future? For comparison's sake, he creates this series of interactive maps showing changes in income, population, and innovation over the last 30 years. The follow up question to this discussion--which Florida doesn't address--relates to the political ramifications of these changes. What type of politics do we see in areas that are growing, adapting, innovating, and prospering as opposed to those areas that are shrinking, stagnating, and suffering? Does one party benefit? Does a certain type of politics--message, tone, style--become more prevalent? When opening up this line of thinking, I'm reminded of the argument of Judis and Texeira in "The Emerging Democratic Majority." Their model for Democratic resurgence was based on the notion of "ideopolises"--urban/suburban centers composed of highly educated, innovative, and diverse individuals. When following some of Florida's trends you can't help but see some parallels. The important question, though, is whether these trends continue.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. In commemoration of this bicentennial, I thought we'd look back at the 1860 election that brought Lincoln to office and kick started the slide to Civil War. Obviously there are a number of important points to raise about the 1860 election, most notably the fact that it brought about a new party system with the ascendancy of the Republican party (rising out of the collapse of the Whigs). In the aftermath of the Civil War this party system became highly regionalized with Democrats in control of the "solid South" and Republicans in control of the northeast and midwest. It took a century for the south to become open to voting consistently for Republicans.

As has been discussed a lot on this site, the regional dimension of American politics is of great interest to both John and I. Understanding how regional attachments to parties and ideologies have shifted--and what brought these shifts about--helps us understand many of our history's macro-level changes. These shifts, at the same time, also help explain the success of individual candidates, running in particular places for particular offices, at distinct points in time.

I'll try to find some more Lincoln-related material to post in the days and weeks ahead. Until then, for those of us who are interested in the contours of American political history, we should remember how there are few figures of greater consequence than Mr. Lincoln.

**Graphic courtesy of

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama's Silver Streak Through Elkhart: Will It Stimulate More Hoosier Dem Turnout?

President Obama had good reason to blow trough Elkhart, Indiana on his two-city barnstorming tour touting his stimulus plan. This small, once-oasis of a Rust Belt city is a savvy choice for a campaign-style backdrop, and a perfect place to refer to repeatedly in his first prime time White House press conference last night.

GF-R slapped together a thumbnail sketch of Elkhart for WaPo’s website, noting its economic slump as the capital of the scuttling RV industry. Elkhart’s staggering, and swelling, unemployment rate has been cited as the prime reason Obama advisors selected this recently struggling city as a backdrop, including Almanac of American Politics guru Michael Barone, even though he makes passing note of its recent stunning electoral shifts.

Economic factors pointed to this locale as a newsworthy whistle-stop on this tour, but ElectionDissection can’t resist investigating those very electoral shifts that Barone merely mentioned, electoral shifts that made Elkhart a “must stop” for Obama on a road show mapped out to shore up his political base as much as to push PR for this legislation.

Elkhart County was ground zero in the electoral upheavals that made Indiana an unexpected battle ground in Election ’08. This last reliably Republican redoubt in the Rust Belt – only Indiana rejected Bill Clinton for Bob Dole in this region in ’96 - offered up a nail biter in November, when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry the Hoosier State since LBJ’s ’64 landslide, albeit narrowly.

John McCain still managed to claim Elkhart, but at a drastically diminished majority from the overwhelming differential that George W. Bush scored over John Kerry in ’04. Even while ceding the county, Obama scored the highest Dem presidential raw vote total ever in Elkhart Co., and the nearly 14,000 more votes that Obama garnered than Kerry amounted to roughly half of Obama’s statewide margin of victory.

Elkhart was one of only nine out of Indiana’s 80 counties carried by Obama in this year’s primary when he gave Hillary Rodham Clinton a fright in a state that most pundits assumed was firmly in her column. Obama campaign organizers successfully harnessed the enthusiasm that spilled over from Obama’s comfortable 18 point victory over Hillary to maximize his general election vote in Elkhart, pushing him closer to capturing those 11 electoral votes.


Elkhart was once home to Miles Laboratories, the original makers of Alka-Seltzer. Miles has since been swallowed up by Bayer AG, the German pharma giant, but, like the millions of Americans nursed back to health to the sing-song of its celebrity cartoon spokescharacter Speedy Alka-Seltzer™, the previously perpetually-strong recreational vehicle and mobile home industries spared Elkhart much of the heartburn that ailed surrounding counties in Michiana, and the Rust Belt at-large. Elkhart has posted continual population increases at each decennial census, while the rest of Michiana stagnated.

At the outset of an economic downturn, it’s often recreational and other “non-essential” industries that take the first, and sharpest, hit as consumers tighten their belts. Elkhart’s troubles may well prove to be over-pronounced in the immediate term, and may yet rebound back to former fortitude once consumers regain confidence.

So, Elkhart doesn’t yet confound the pattern that ElectionDissection has been illuminating from our inception. Conventional Wisdom is insisting that Elkhart’s troubles spurred the spike in its Democratic vote in 2008 with traditionally Republican voters now demanding a more activist economic agenda. Demographic and electoral trends may not yet permit us to declare that “Elkhart is Obama-country,” but Elkhart does resemble on a more modest scale - with its relative historical economic strength and a more educated electorate, less susceptible to the siren call of economic populism of either the Democratic John Edwards stripe or the Mike Huckabee Republican variety - the thriving ‘burbs of North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia that have pushed those states from Ruby Red to Perplexed Purple.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Can You Import Hope??? Maybe! We! Can!

A quick detour into the international realm. One thing that people who follow campaigns know is that winners get copied. Strategies, tactics, and messages that work in one context inevitably get tried in another. While we're normally familiar with this in the U.S., we're seeing an interesting attempt at borrowing taking place in the current Israeli Knesset elections. While I'm not going to even attempt an analysis of what's going on or what's likely to happen--I know my limitations--there have been a number of stories pointing to how candidates on all sides have looked to replicate what Obama did. For complete coverage leading up to next week's vote, see the Jerusalem Post's rundown.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times wrote about Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu's appropriation of Obama's website design. Yesterday, the Washington Post looked at the efforts of Kadima's Tzipi Livni (she even has a Facebook page!!) as well as those of the smaller Shas party (which largely represents Israel's Sephardic population). The latter has gone so far as to adopt "Yes We Can! (With God's Help)" as their slogan. For you Hebrew readers out there, here's Shas' bumper sticker:

Pay attention to next Tuesday's vote to see how things play out. I may deputize some of my in-laws for post election analysis so stay tuned.

Some Quick Hits

Just a couple of quick notes on some stories I've come across:

Today's Politico has two stories on the increasingly irascible Blue Dog Coalition. As I hinted at the other day, the Pelosi vs. Blue Dog relationship is turning out to be an interesting early storyline this year. See stories here and here.

Politico also has a story on the race to succeed newly appointed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. NY's 20th District is historically Republican so this should prove to be a barn burner.

In Esquire's profile of Obama campaign manager David Plouffe we get a little more elaboration on what "Organizing for America" will look like (see originial post on this topic here).

Finally, the January/February issue of the Atlantic has a number of stories revolving around the issue of race and "the end of white America." While I'd recommend all the stories, one snippet in Marc Ambinder's piece "Race Over?" jumped out at me. He points out that one advantage Obama had over previous Democratic nominees like Kerry and Gore was that he didn't need to worry, by election day, about rounding up black votes. While the African American vote, we know, is overwhelmingly Democratic, turnout can be tricky. Obama's primary victories had mobilized black voters and given them the sense that Obama could win. Thus:

Exactly four years earlier, John Kerry was flying from urban center to urban center, enlisting the support of Bill Clinton to pump up minority turnout. In some states, internal Kerry polling in mid-October showed Bush overperforming among black voters. Democrats were obsessed with what they called the "African American piece": the quadrennial party efforts to get out the black vote, usually with visits from black leaders and robocalls from Bill Clinton...But on October 22, 2008 Obama was in largely white exurban Virginia.

By the end of any campaign, resources and time become extremely thin. Thus, Obama was fortunate to be able to spend his last days reaching out to those voters that had eluded Gore and especially Kerry (moderate, suburban whites), and do so using a message that was directly aimed at them. Whereas Gore and Kerry had to talk to both black and white audiences, as Ambinder writes, Obama

did not have to pander to black leaders; he did not have to target specific messages at the black community with the attendant risk of exacerbating economic tension between blacks and whites. He did not have to bring up race...Obama was able to credential himself as an African American without engaging in overt racial politics. Or, rather, the black community credentialed Obama without his resorting to racial politicking, something that white candidates had to do.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Is Kirsten Gillibrand the New Senator from New York State or New York City???

Back in December I wrote a post about the advantages, if any, possessed by statewide candidates who hail from their state's largest city. What we see with the current Senate is no real correlation between electoral success and one's residence. Today's New York Times runs a profile of the newly appointed Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand. The former House Rep. hails from an upstate (and traditionally Republican) district centered around Albany. She originally won the seat in 2006, defeating Republican incumbent John Sweeney.

In the story, a short snippet caught my attention that is pertinent to this question of whether it matters where in a state a candidate comes from:

Her appointment occasioned yawps of disappointment from downstate Democrats, who tend to view Senate seats as proprietary possessions. Charles E. Goodell, who was appointed to fill Robert F. Kennedy’s seat in 1968, was the last senator to come from outside New York City or its suburbs.

If there's any state in the country where the big ciy/out state dynamic is more pronounced than New York, I can't think of one. In the weeks leading up to the appointment, one of Gillibrand's biggest advocates was New York's other senator, and former head of the DSCC, Chuck Schumer. That the Brooklynite would go to bat for Gillibrand indicates that he thinks she can win NY city area voters. His track record in recruiting candidates over the past two cycles is beyond reproach, it seems, given the Dems pickup of 13 seats and reclamation of the majority. To give a sense of how much of the New York vote is provided by the metro area, I looked at the 2008 totals by county. Statewide, there were 7,594,813 votes cast. Using a somewhat broad definition of the NY metro area, the relevant county vote was:

New York (Manhattan): 667,594
Kings (Brooklyn): 759, 848
Queens: 597,695
Bronx: 381,322
Richmond (Staten Island): 166,578
Nassau: 635,482
Suffolk: 659,403
Westchester: 413,044
Rockland: 132,193

All told, then, the yield out of this part of the state was 4,413,159 votes or 58% of the statewide total. When one looks at how these counties voted, one sees both the wisdom in the Gillibrand pick, and the danger. Here is Obama's % of the vote in each county:

New York: 86%
Kings: 79%
Queens: 75%
Bronx: 89%
Richmond: 47%
Nassau: 54%
Suffolk: 53%
Westchester: 64%
Rockland: 53%

So, while the immediate NY city area is overwhelmingly Democratic (with the exception of Staten Island), the Democratic vote share declines as one moves out into the broader suburban counties. Though these counties still went blue, one can imagine these voters being receptive to a candidate who has a much more moderate profile than a traditional liberal from the boroughs. This was no doubt on Schumer's mind as he pushed her candidacy. Gillibrand will have to defend the seat in 2010 so someone with a bigger base of support (coupled with a great fundraising record) would seem to have a leg up.

What's the danger?? While Gillibrand's candidacy has a lot of "up state up side", she needs to watch her left flank. As the Times article makes clear, on issues such as gun control and immigration her voting record has been to the right of most of her Democratic colleagues. Thus, she opens herself up for a potential primary challenge. There was speculation during the appointment process that more liberal House reps. such as Carolyn Maloney (14th) and Jerold Nadler (8th) were being considered. So, as the new senator begins to learn the issues of importance to a broader constituency, she must do so fearing the City's desire to reclaim its "rightful" ownership of the seat.

Meanwhile, On the Democratic Side of the Stimulus Vote...

Last week I wrote about the Republican caucus' universal opposition to the Stimulus Bill. Today, lets take a quick look at the 11 Democrats who broke ranks to vote against the legislation. Politico has a story about these 11, noting that 9 of them came from districts carried by John McCain last year. The 11 nays are (with those from McCain winning districts in bold):

Allen Boyd (FL-2)
Bobby Bright (AL-2)
Jim Cooper (TN-5)
Brad Ellsworth (IN-8)
Parker Griffith (AL-5)
Paul Kanjorski (PA-11)
Frank Kratovil (MD-1)
Walt Minnick (ID-1)
Collin Peterson (MN-7)
Heath Shuler (NC-11)
Gene Taylor (MS-4)

In this list, 4 members are freshmen--Bright, Griffith, Kratovil, and Minnick--so one might hypothesize about an effect similar to the one I described happening during the 1993 Budget Resolution vote (see Mezvinsky, Marjorie Margolies). Coming from normally strong Republican constituencies, these new members decided (unlike Mezvinsky) to stick with the district. To get a further sense of how red these districts are, in 2004 each gave George W. Bush at least 60% of the vote: AL-2--66%; AL-5--60%; MD-1--62%; ID-1--68%.

Perhaps the best explanations for the bulk of these defections, as the Politico story notes, is 1) the bill's cost and 2) the role afforded to Democratic skeptics in the drafting process. Of the non-freshmen no votes, all but Kanjorski are members of the Blue Dog Coalition. Led in this fight by Jim Cooper,a veteran of the budget battles of the early and mid 90's, these fiscally conservative Dems seem to have been shut out of the drafting and strategizing stages by the Pelosi leadership team. With the bill destined to pass handily, these Blue Dogs felt comfortable making a stand in favor of fiscal prudence and against the strong arm tactics of the party leadership. Indeed, this appears to be a recurring dynamic within the Democratic caucus. A more progressively minded leadership, buoyed by a large majority, seems unfazed by the defection of a small cadre of members. If the final bill is less "watered down" as a result of this more hard-line stance, then Speaker Pelosi seems quite content to live with a disgruntled--yet seemingly impotent--right flank. When the Stimulus Bill returns for final passage we'll get to see whether this dynamic repeats itself, albeit with an interesting twist--will more moderate (or threatened) Republicans vote in favor of the package at the same time that these Blue Dogs vote no??? If this indeed were to happen, is that what Obama-era bi-partisanship will come to look like??