After an often bitter, intensely ideological Michigan primary contest that pitted two of the most politically and personally distinct Democrats in Congress, U.S. Rep. John Dingell defeated U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers Tuesday.
The result was a heartbreaker for women’s groups, which poured time and money into the Rivers’ campaign in an effort to maintain representation for women in the House. Rivers is one of just 60 women in a 435-member chamber.
The support from women’s organizations such as Emily’s List was not nearly enough, however, to overcome Dingell’s fund-raising clout and powerful connections.
Dingell, the dean of the House, met Franklin Roosevelt as a child and was elected to Congress during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term. Rivers, who was born after Dingell’s Congressional career began, was elected in 1994 as a young mother with liberal views that matched those of her Ann Arbor base.
While Dingell, 76, and Rivers, 45, both maintained consistent pro-labor records, Rivers was a decidely more progressive member on issues of military spending, gun control, environmental protection, women’s rights and gay rights.
The two Democratic House members were forced into the same district by a Republican redistricting plan that was designed to insure the defeat of one of them. From the start, it was assumed Rivers would be the loser — since she lacked the legislative connections and fund-raising prowess of the House’s senior member. Rivers was still outspent, at least $2.5 million to $1.6 million.
But Rivers made a race of it, mounting a campaign that pegged Dingell — a longtime National Rifle Association member and close ally of the auto industry — as too conservative on issues of gun control, environmental protection and abortion rights. With a strong assist from Emily’s List, the national donor group that assists pro-choice Democratic women, Rivers was able to mount a campaign that combined heavy grassroots activism and savvy media. And some polls suggested it brought her into a tie with Dingell late in the race. Ultimately, however, Dingell won by a 59-41 margin.
Solid support for the senior member from the powerful United Auto Workers union and Democratic insiders — Tipper Gore was among the last-minute campaigners on his behalf –allowed Dingell to prevail. The biggest assist he got may well have come from the NRA, which launched an aggressive campaign to get Republican voters to cast ballots in the Democratic primary on Dingell’s behalf.
When all was said and done, Dingell offered his younger challenger a grudging compliment, saying of Rivers on election night: “She did make us work, I want to say. The primary this year was extremely difficult.”
As for Rivers, she told Ann Arbor supporters: I am not going away. Our commitments will endure on our issues… There was nothing I would’ve done differently. Every decision was based on our principles and the ethics of how I wanted to operate.”
GOVERNORSHIPS: The argument that 2004 could be another “year of the woman” politically picked up steam Tuesday night, as two more Democratic women were nominated for governorships. There are currently five women serving in governorships — three Republicans (Arizona’s Jane Dee Hull, Montana’s Judy Martz, Massachusetts’ Jane Swift) and two Democrats (New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Delaware’s Ruth Minner.)
On Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm easily defeated long-time U.S. House Minority Whip David Bonior and former Michigan Governor James Blanchard in a hard-fought Democratic primary in that state. Kansas primary voters chose Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius as the Democratic nominee for governor of that state. Other Democratic women who have a chance of winning this year include Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, veteran environmental lawyer and local government official Kathleen Falk in Wisconsin, former state senator Myrth York in Rhode Island, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in Florida and Massachusetts’ Shannon O’Brien.
O’Brien and Falk face tough September primary contests. Most of the other contenders are already positioned — as Granholm and Sebelius now are — for November races that could transform the face of state leadership in the U.S. “In 1992, the year of the woman was largely about increasing representation in Congress,” says Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List. “This year, there’s excitement about the governors’ races. That’s where you could see some real breakthoughs”