Any election result that gives Tom DeLay cause for celebration–and, make no mistake, the 2004 election gave the dark prince of Congress plenty to celebrate–ought to send a sharp shiver through the American body politic. Indeed, as depressing as the presidential election results were, the news from House and Senate contests around the country was worse. Now–or at least for as long as he can keep ahead of his many legal and ethical challenges–DeLay will be the dominant figure in Congress.
House Republicans went into the 2004 election cycle with a 227-205 advantage over the Democrats; they’re likely to finish it with a 233-199 advantage. That’s not a big shift, but it does represent a dramatic victory for DeLay, the GOP majority leader, who redrew the political map of Texas in order to increase his grip on the House. Of five Democratic incumbents who had their districts drawn out from under them, four lost. Only Representative Chet Edwards, who in one of the nicer bits of electoral irony represents George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, won re-election. The one other bit of good news was that the Democratic incumbent whom DeLay really wanted to beat, progressive Lloyd Doggett, outsmarted the man they call The Hammer by moving into a new district and building a coalition of working-class Latinos and Austin-area liberals who gave him an easy win–and status as the Lone Star antithesis of DeLay.
A few other races also went against DeLay’s plan. Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney fought her way back from a 2002 defeat and promises to be a welcome thorn in the side of both Republican and Democratic leaders. Colorado Democrat John Salazar, a rancher who ran on the all-but-forgotten theme that Republican policies are bad for rural America, won a GOP seat. The senior Republican in the House, Phil Crane of Illinois, got beaten by Democrat Melissa Bean, whose campaign focused on the need to protect the environment from the right-wing wrecking crew in Congress. Bean will join a number of new women in the House, including such progressives as Pennsylvania’s Allyson Schwartz and Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both of whom emphasized the need for real healthcare reform.
Unfortunately, the good news tended to be about individual triumphs because there was no clear set of Democratic themes and issues in Congressional races. Democrats may get more focused once Congress comes back into session; since they will be unable to pass much legislation, their primary task now is to hold the line against an energized Republican majority that promises a DeLay-driven agenda of more tax cuts for the rich, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and privatizing Social Security. Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who after the Texas losses should feel less need to play to the party’s right, may get a chance to fight one of those battles soon if Republicans try to use a lame-duck session of the House to pass Bush’s Central America Free Trade Agreement, which would extend NAFTA-style free-trade policies south of Mexico. Another fight on reauthorization of the Administration’s “fast track” authority to negotiate such agreements could come in March.
Pelosi will have her work cut out for her, however. And the Senate will be a less effective buffer against DeLay’s extremism than it was in Bush’s first term. Despite decent recruitment of candidates and solid fundraising by the Senatorial Campaign Committee chair Jon Corzine, the Democrats had a disastrous November 2. Minority leader Tom Daschle became the first Senate leader to lose his seat since a young Arizonan named Barry Goldwater swept out majority leader Ernest McFarland. The Democrats lost five open Southern seats that had been theirs. They also lost a contest for a Republican seat in Oklahoma that seemed at one point to be winnable, and for the seat held by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, whose appointment by her father had supposedly left her vulnerable. Had Democrats moved quickly enough, they might have picked up a GOP seat in Kentucky, where incumbent Jim Bunning’s bizarre behavior almost shifted the seat to Democrat Dan Mongiardo. But money for Mongiardo was too little, too late.
Democrats did pick up GOP seats in Colorado, where Ken Salazar won comfortably, and in Illinois, where Barack Obama was a landslide winner. Obama, to his credit, came out fighting, noting on election night that “you still need sixty votes in the Senate to make things happen.” The likely new Senate Democratic leader, Nevada’s Harry Reid, should follow Obama’s feisty example. Reid, who sided with Daschle when the South Dakotan endorsed Bush’s request for authority to use force in Iraq, would do well to note that while Daschle went down, the Democrats who broke ranks with their party leadership to oppose the resolution were re-elected. Among them is Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who also clashed with Daschle before becoming the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act. Against a millionaire opponent who earned strong GOP backing, Feingold criticized the war, defended the Constitution and was re-elected by a landslide–running almost 150,000 votes ahead of the Democratic presidential ticket.