Incumbents’ nightmare: Trapped in Washington, lawmakers fret over campaign back home

President Bush and members of Congress are trying to come to an agreement on a Wall Street bailout package -- a crisis that complicates incumbents' political campaigns.
President Bush and members of Congress are trying to come to an agreement on a Wall Street bailout package — a crisis that complicates incumbents’ political campaigns.

While Congress wrestles in Washington with the nation’s financial crisis, re-election campaigns continue — or don’t — at home.

Incumbents do almost anything they can to avoid prolonged Capitol Hill sessions during an election year, with good reason. Their challengers get the home districts to themselves, reaping the benefits of personal connections as issues unfold. At VFW clubs, corner coffee shops and business luncheons, the challengers can look voters in the eye and say, “I feel your pain, your anger, your fear.”

Add a crisis that heaps controversy on the incumbents’ records while also trapping them in Washington, and you have the recipe for major upheavals on Election Day.

This development is “exactly what incumbents didn’t want,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield.

“In the last several months the Congress has done very little, and part of that is an election-year strategy to run out the clock when you are ahead,” Schier said.

Now, that strategy is shattered.

In fact, the reality that slammed into Capitol Hill this week — and into presidential campaign offices as they prepared for tonight’s debate — is that this crisis has taken on the proportions of a politically cataclysmic event. Like nothing else that has been seen for a generation, it threatens to punish incumbents and restructure political fault lines the campaigns have meticulously worked.

“Americans’ anger is in full bloom, jumping off the screen in capital letters and exclamation points, in the e-mail in-boxes of elected representatives in the nation’s capital,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times.

One email that Rep. Candice S. Miller, a conservative Republican from Michigan, shared with the Times said: “NO BAILOUT, I am a registered republican. . . I will vote and campaign hard against you if we have to subsidize the very people that have sold out MY COUNTRY.”

The backlash, in phone calls as well as email messages, is putting lawmakers in a quandary as they weigh what many regard as the most consequential decision of their careers: whether to agree to President Bush’s request to spend an estimated $700 billion in taxpayer money to rescue the financial services system, Stolberg wrote.

Around the country, Republican and Democratic voters are rising up in outright opposition to the White House plan or, at the very least, to express concern that it is being pushed through Congress in haste.

Lawmakers, in turn, are agonizing over what to do.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, told the Times he had been getting 2,000 e-mail messages and telephone calls a day, roughly 95 percent opposed. When Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who votes with Democrats, posted a petition on his Web site asking Paulson to require that taxpayers receive an equity stake in the bailed-out companies, more than 20,000 people signed.

“We certainly have never brought in 20,000 names in a day and a half,” Mr. Sanders said, sounding astonished. “For us, that’s off the wall.”

From Green Bay to New Orleans, newspapers today are reporting an eruption of anger from the grassroots.

The response in Washington has been a near panic to pin blame on the other side.

“The process is getting bogged down by a host of partisan fears: fear that one candidate could be perceived as breaking the logjam and saving the country from financial ruin, fear that one party could be blamed for passing a costly government bailout of fat cats on Wall Street, and fear of who might be blamed if nothing is done,” Time reported.

Second District race
The politics of the crisis is playing out in Minnesota as well.

Take Minnesota’s Second Congressional District where former Watertown mayor  Steve Sarvi is the Democratic challenger to Republican incumbent John Kline, who is seeking a fourth term in office. Sarvi made his rounds this week, door knocking in Lakeville, attending house parties in Hastings and Shakopee, meeting with College Democrats at St. Olaf and speaking for the Rotary Club in Zumbrota.

Meanwhile, Kline’s campaign was sending out alerts that upcoming events may need to be rescheduled if Congress’ tumultuous session runs into the weekend and beyond.

“It’s a juggling thing,” said Kline’s spokesman Troy Young. “Everything is fluid right now.”

Mind you, Kline is not complaining. He gains stature by acting on other high profile decisions Congress is taking this week related to offshore drilling, mental health parity and national defense.

“He is serving his constituent in Washington,” Young said. “He would never put the campaign ahead of his constituents.”

And Kline has enjoyed the considerable benefits of incumbency, including hefty campaign contributions. As of Aug. 20, Kline’s campaign had raised $1.2 million compared to Sarvi’s $339,087, according to, an arm of the non-profit and non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Still, the race had shown subtle signs of tightening. MinnPost reported recently that Congressional Quarterly has downgraded the strength of Kline’s grip on the seat in the south metro district. CQ still rated Kline as the favorite, but it shifted the race a notch from “safe Republican” to “Republican favored.”

Sarvi won the endorsement of the Independence Party of Minnesota. He also chipped away at Kline’s signature issue, veterans’ affairs, by hammering on veterans’ issues and putting Kline on the defensive. Sarvi served with his National Guard unit in Iraq, and Kline is a decorated Marine Corps officer who served in the Vietnam War and other conflicts. 

Further, a poll in August by the liberal group Alliance for a Better Minnesota found the race to be virtually tied, but with 30 percent of the district’s voters undecided, the Rochester Post Bulletin reported.

Young, Kline’s spokesman, dismissed the poll, saying “the results reflect the credibility of the organization.”

Anger and fear
Now, as anger and fear mount over the nation’s financial crisis, Sarvi is trumpeting the considerable campaign contributions Kline got from the financial sector. And he is portraying himself as a skilled outsider — a former mayor and city administrator — who could help clean up the mess in Washington.

The crisis, Sarvi said in a press release, “is the result of years of Republican ‘hands-off’ no-regulation policies.”

Such is the backdrop in one congressional district alone for the raging controversy over the $700 billion plan to rescue major players in the crisis.

The bailout package poses risks for incumbents in many districts where voters are reeling from high unemployment rates and gas prices, millions of home foreclosures and shrinking values of retirement accounts.

“Given the anger among voters at home and closeness of November’s elections, the political nervousness among members of both parties is not surprising,” David Rogers wrote on

No solution is going to be very popular, said Schier at Carleton College, and that sets up “a fat target for populist rhetoric,” that will punish incumbents of both parties.

“There is significant risk for incumbents in all of this,” he said.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Loretta Holscher on 09/26/2008 - 02:46 pm.

    Throw them all out. A politician by nature is looking out for themselves and no one else. The only exception to that was Paul Wellstone, God rest his soul.

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