Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bringing home the bacon and the votes -- June 26, 2014 column


It’s a simple strategy for a congressional hopeful: Tie the weight of what’s wrong with Washington around an incumbent’s neck and watch him or her sink.  

Sometimes the mere threat of being cursed as a Washington insider prompts veteran members of Congress to fold their tents. Other times, the strategy confirms the conventional wisdom that voters want to send the Old Guard, and even the Middle-Aged Guard, packing.  

Witness Rep. Eric Cantor’s demise in Virginia’s 7th congressional district Republican primary. Winner Dave Brat is a college professor and local tea party favorite unencumbered by legislative experience or a voting record.  

Cantor, first elected in 2000, could have played up his experience and given people a reason to vote for him again. But that would have meant acknowledging that Washington does some things right, an anathema to Republicans these days.

People prize experience in other fields:  surgeons who know their way around the body, hairdressers who can wield scissors, pitchers who throw strikes. Why not legislators who can get laws passed and, yes, bring home the bacon? It’s only pork when it goes elsewhere.

We want the federally funded roads and bridges that make our commutes and our kids’ school bus rides safer. Could I see a show of hands of those willing to sacrifice the current economic boost of their nearby military base for the delayed pleasure of debt reduction? I thought so.

It has dawned on some incumbents that they make a fatal mistake when they fail to defend – and even tout -- their Washington experience. It’s smart to make a virtue of necessity.

And the strategy may be especially appealing in the South, which has long believed in electing candidates young and keeping them in Washington. The practice has paid dividends in many, many federal facilities with high-paying jobs.    

On Tuesday, Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, won the Republican primary runoff for Senate in Mississippi by focusing on what he and Washington had done and could yet do for Mississippi.

Cochran went to Congress in 1973, the same year his opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, was born. McDaniel argued the courtly Cochran had stayed in Washington too long.

After Cochran narrowly won the primary and faced a runoff just three weeks later, he started talking about the billions of federal dollars he has brought his state for highways, bridges, education, research facilities and to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  McDaniel, a tea party favorite, would cut the very programs Mississippi relies on, Cochran warned.   

Cochran made his pitch not just to Republicans but also to independents and Democrats, particularly black voters, in the open runoff, increasing turnout by 66,000 votes over the primary. Cochran won with 51 percent of the vote to McDaniel’s 49 percent.

In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a vulnerable Democrat first elected in 1996, isn’t shy about telling voters about the bacon she’s brought home. She’s proud of getting an additional $3 billion in federal funds for her state after Hurricane Katrina and of her role as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which she casts as an asset for the state’s 300,000 oil and gas workers.

“The voters over 18 years have established great clout in Washington,” Landrieu says in a campaign ad. “It doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to them.” The people of Louisiana “sit at the head of the table with the gavel,” she says, adding, “The state has clout that it should really think carefully about before giving up.”

Landrieu told The Washington Post: “People may be mad at Washington, but I think they look at me and they say, ‘You know, she’s an exception, she’s actually been able to produce major pieces of legislation…she doesn’t vote with the Democratic Party all the time.’”

In Virginia, freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who faces Republican Ed Gillespie in November, is also trying to turn his Washington experience into a plus.

Former Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia told a forum in Charlottesville June 20 that Virginia needs Mark Warner’s seniority – especially after the loss of Cantor.

“Seniority helps this state,” said John Warner, who served in the Senate for three decades. “That should be the factor that people should consider in the voting box.”  

(c) 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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