US: GOP, Democratic teams, now ready for the 2014 showdown

US: GOP, Democratic teams, now ready for the 2014 showdown

The American primary elections continue their procession through the various states – this time around a Tea Party challenger is trounced in the Republican primary – by, of all things, Democratic Party-supporting African Americans. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at some of the outcomes of the latest round of primaries.

In the most recent American mid-term election primary battles, in two of the mostly closely watched races, Republican stalwart Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran brushed back a Tea Party-backed challenger, state Senator Chris McDaniel. The two men had to face each other in a runoff election following an indecisive primary where McDaniel had been the leader but had polled less than half of the votes in the original primary.

And over in New York City, twenty-two-term Congressman Charles Rangel – often nicknamed “The Lion of Harlem” or “The Silver Fox” – appears to have narrowly held onto a lead to be the Democratic nominee for his congressional district. This win, if it holds up in the face of possible challenges would virtually ensure he will be back in Congress yet again, come January 2015.

The national trudge through the spring and summer primary season continues apace during this non-presidential election year. All 435 congressional seats are up for election, along with a third of the Senate. Senators have six-year terms, there are two per each state, regardless of population, and the terms are staggered so that a third of the body comes up for election every two years. In addition a significant number of governorships, mayoral offices, and thousands of state legislative and more local offices are also up for grabs. Once parties have picked their candidates, except where an incumbent stands unopposed, the next step is the November election.

The Democrats currently control the Senate by a slim margin, 52-48 (counting leftist independent Bernie Sanders as voting with the Democrats), although the Republicans now have a significant majority in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives. Because a majority of the seats up for election this year in the Senate are held by Democrats, or are becoming vacant because an incumbent Democrat has chosen not to stand for re-election, there is a real possibility the Senate, like the House of Representatives, will come under the control of the Republicans in November. This would obviously make Barack Obama’s last two years as president a distinctly uncomfortable time. A Congress fully arrayed against Obama would almost guarantee few if any large-scale, new initiatives that require congressional approval would be passed, or even debated fully. Given the Cochran win in the Mississippi primary, the Republican establishment now has a solid candidate in that state that helps give it some breathing space in moving into a position to contend for the majority of that body by the time the November election is counted. A win by McDaniel there might have allowed the Democratic candidate to squeak by for an unanticipated win.

In recent weeks, while Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell – a scion of the Republican establishment – had eventually thoroughly trounced his Tea Party-aligned challenger, the House of Representatives’ Republican Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, had been ambushed by a challenger, David Brat, who was ideologically in sync with that Tea Party faction, even if the big funding groups from that quarter had made little financial contribution to Brat’s surprise victory.

And so it was that this week, the establishment delivered its return punch when Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran, a mainstream conservative with more four decades of time in Congress (counting both Senate and House) managed to blunt state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s Tea Party-fueled effort. In evaluating the results, the AP noted that in “Mississippi, outside groups, from tea party organisations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spent some $12 million on the GOP Senate runoff. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback — and Gulfport, Mississippi, native — Brett Favre called the 76-year-old Cochran a ‘proven and respected leader’ in one Chamber ad” in a winning effort to hold off the McDaniel challenge.

Cochran now faces a challenge in the general election from Travis Childers, a former congressman, in this now-heavily Republican state. As a result, Cochran is expected to win handily, something that might not have been the Republican candidate’s fate if McDaniel had triumphed.

With this result now on the books, and few further chances left to them in this primary season, Taylor Budowich, executive director of Tea Party Express, said after this round of voting was over, “Unfortunately in Mississippi, nefarious campaign tactics seem to have won the day over ideas and a bold conservative vision. We thank Senator Chris McDaniel for courageously standing up to the political machine. In politics, the righteous are not always victorious, but Americans across the country appreciate the values that his campaign was built upon.” Despite this defeat, Tea Party supporters are still hopeful that their little-known champion will be able to beat long-time Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander in that state’s primary in August.

As noted above, McDaniel had originally bested Cochran in the initial primary, but not with fifty per cent of the votes cast. As a result, a runoff had been scheduled between McDaniel and Cochran and during the three-week interval until Tuesday’s ballot, Cochran and his supporters had highlighted his seniority even as McDaniel had tried to paint Cochran as part of the old Washington “tax and spend” crowd. Cochran, meanwhile, argued his influence and seniority had allowed him to guide billions of dollars of federal spending to his home state for a wide range of projects in Mississippi.

Summing it up, Washington Post political analyst Chris Cillizza, in analysing Cochran’s success, commented, “After trailing the lesser known McDaniel in the June 3 primary, Cochran, in three weeks time, managed to: a) grow the electorate in his favor by, among other things, recruiting African Americans to his cause b) run successfully on a message of keeping his seniority in Washington and c) win despite, quite clearly, being the less naturally skilled candidate on the stump.”

The political impact of this “bringing home the bacon” thing is politically potent, but not always well understood, even by Americans. In Mississippi, like most southern and western states, while politicians from those regions often excoriate the twin evils of Washington control and federal taxes, the actual net payments to those states as a result of federal spending far exceeds the tax revenues actually generated there. Citizens in those states, whether they are ostensibly deeply conservative or not and even as they pronounce their suspicions of Washington, usually see such spending coming into their respective states as a measure of a legislator’s skill in Washington.

But beyond the stress on his pork barrel proclivities, perhaps the most interesting element in this Mississippi primary was that Cochran deliberately reached out to traditional Democratic voters – particularly African Americans and union members for support. Such voters could cross party lines to vote in the runoff and support him if they so chose. In fact, many states run open primaries where individuals can vote in whichever party selection process they choose to vote in, regardless of their expressed political party support. This presumed element of Cochran’s victory will now be getting some very close scrutiny by analysts, and there will be some serious contemplation about the potential shifts in the way African Americans in the South are responding to their region’s politics, going forward.

Meanwhile, in New York City, in the congressional district that encompasses Harlem, a big chunk of upper Manhattan, and parts of the Bronx, 84-year-old Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, a man who has represented that district for forty-four years, has been holding onto a narrow lead (pending a final count – and possible recounts) over New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat. Espaillat had been trying to become the first Dominican-American member of Congress. Espaillant had challenged Rangel two years before, losing by 1,100 votes.

As of this writing, a number of absentee ballots had yet to be counted and their results fed into the overall count. By the end of Wednesday, the AP had reported, “With 99 percent of the vote counted in unofficial results, Rangel was leading Espaillat 47.4 percent to 43.7 percent, a difference of less than 2,000 votes. About 47,000 votes were counted on Tuesday. The Associated Press is not declaring a winner because the city Board of Elections was not able say how many absentee and affidavit ballots were still outstanding. The Board said no further information on those ballots would be immediately released.”

Rangel has been dogged by a variety of financial problems in recent years, including some embarrassing federal tax issues that came to the fore in 2010. After those ethics violations, his party forced him to surrender the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee (the managerial part of the congressional committee system that essentially determines what bills move forward in the congressional process) while his party still held the majority in the House, and that weakened his political power. But more importantly, perhaps, have been the changing demographics of New York City (as well as a partial redrawing of his district’s boundaries). This has meant that Rangel’s district, long a bastion of African American political impact as well as its social and cultural impact, is now significantly and increasingly Caribbean-American (and also includes a growing number of white residents moving into gentrifying neighbourhoods that are part of the district as well).

This growing “Hispanicisation” of Rangel’s congressional district also mirrors the growing number of Hispanic voters in the country more generally, a pertinent fact candidates, campaign strategists, and would-be candidates will increasingly be taking into consideration in contemplating future elections. Hispanic Americans are now a larger share of the national population than are black-Americans, although the category of Hispanic-American includes people of widely varying backgrounds, including Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and Midwest, Caribbean-Americans across the northeast, and Cuban-Americans in Florida, just for starters.

The primary season is now moving into its final phase as the winning candidates start to gear up for the campaigns that loom ahead – especially after the traditional summer vacation gives people a bit of a break from politics. So far at least, the big takeaway for Republicans must surely be that while Tea Party influence has – presumably – crested with a few establishment casualties such as Eric Cantor in evidence, the establishment has largely held on. By the same token, given these challenges within, winning Republican candidates have taken to publicly demonstrating their conservative views and values, helping edge their party a bit further to the right than it had been prior to this year’s primary elections.

Or as Politico commented, “The House majority leader’s loss in Virginia two weeks ago seems more like an exception in a year that’s otherwise gone well for the establishment. Incumbents everywhere did well. Even Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel looks poised to win his Democratic primary and with it a 23rd term, despite a changing district and a credible challenge from a state senator who almost toppled him two years ago. ‘The one thing that everyone can agree on tonight: The Cantor loss now looks even more embarrassing for Cantor,’ tweeted Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Guy Cecil.”

But, given Barack Obama’s own troubles – falling poll numbers even over foreign policy issues and the problems likely to arise no matter what is done in Iraq – Democratic candidates in many states will have an uphill battle, come November. This will be especially true with the Senate elections as the electoral map this year clearly favours the GOP, despite some heavy campaigning by Democrats. That, of course, will set up some of the more salient features of the country’s political geography for 2016. And that, in turn, is something politicians will focus on seriously, the moment the last ballot is counted on 4 November 2014. DM

Photo: Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) arrives to address the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Awards in New York, New York, USA, on 05 August 2010.  EPA/JUSTIN LANE

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