Perhaps never before have the people of Harlem and Hattiesburg, the Bronx and Biloxi participated in such a similar referendum on the same day.
But that’s what is happening Tuesday, when voters in a lopsidedly liberal section of New York City, and all across reliably conservative Mississippi, will answer the same question: Has an icon of the modern Congress overstayed his welcome?
Other storylines are getting at least as much attention as Thad Cochran battles for the Republican nomination for a seventh term in the Senate and as Charles B. Rangel goes after the Democratic nomination for a 23rd term in the House. Down South, the principal narrative is about whether the tea party’s top senatorial hopeful can win the movement’s most prominent challenge to the GOP establishment . Up North, the script is framed mainly as a tale about the gains of Latinos at the expense of African-Americans as players in urban Democratic politics.
The protagonists in both those versions of the stories are state senators. A runoff triumph by Chris McDaniel, who’s turning 42 on June 28 would give him a shot at becoming an anchor tenant in the confrontational wing of the Senate GOP Conference next year. (He’d still have to win a potentially competitive race against centrist former Democratic Rep. Travis Childers.) A primary win by 59-year-old Adriano Espaillat in New York would be tantamount to his election as the first Dominican-American in Congress.
As the final weekend began for both campaigns, the consensus view was that Cochran’s hold on his seat was tenuous while Rangel was looking to survive.
Victories by either McDaniel or Espaillat would put them among the trendsetters in relatively new aspects of American public life. In that sense they are similar to the veterans they’re seeking to take out — each of whom is emblematic of a congressional evolution that started in the 1970s.
Cochran’s election as the first Republican senator from Mississippi in 100 years heralded his party’s coming takeover of the South. Rangel was in the vanguard of Congressional Black Caucus members who avoided rhetorical outrage in favor of leadership connections and deal-cutting skills to achieve tangible results for their constituents. A small portion of the electorate has been around long enough to remember (let alone care about) either incumbent's trailblazing past. Instead, what voters in every re-election race weigh much more heavily is what the member has done for them — or to annoy them — lately.
Long before starting the 2014 campaign, each member knew the identity of his main opponent and was fully aware of the the primary complaint against his re-election.
For the six years since his last race, Cochran has watched insurgent antagonism grow toward his style of Republicanism, which combines support for smaller government with efforts to harness as much federal spending as possible in the cause of economic benefit close to home.
For the four years since he was censured by the House for a range of ethics violations, including failure to pay taxes and improperly using congressional resources, Rangel has been fighting the perception he was a spent legislative force. That view, along with a district reconfigured to be majority Hispanic and less than one-third black, resulted in a 2012 primary when Rangel defeated Espaillat by just 1,086 votes.
Both the 77-year-old former chairman of Senate Appropriations and the 84-year-old former chairman of House Ways and Means both decided to seek valedictory terms after sending strong signals they were seriously considering retirement. And both have made some serious rhetorical missteps in recent weeks, leading to questions from both friend and foe about whether they've lost touch with the best practices of modern politics.
“Just what the heck has he done besides saying he’s a Dominican?” Rangel snapped about Espaillat at their first televised debate. Critics jumped on the congressman for encouraging just the sort of racial division he’d spent years working against. Allies worried that Rangel was surely diminishing his chances by making the contests about identity politics given the district’s demographic shift.
Victory is de facto proof that a lawmaker made the right call in running again. Defeat means an indefinite period of second-guessing about whether it would have been better to take the advice given to concert performers (yield the stage while the audience is still clapping) and ball players (retire when you can still hit a big league curve ball).
The political biographies of Cochran and Rangel have one more thing in common. Each is only the second person to hold his particular seat in Congress since World War II. James Eastland knew his segregationist past was catching up with him and retired as a Mississippi senator at age 73 in 1978, though he was still firmly in charge at the Judiciary Committee. The scandal-plagued Adam Clayton Powell Jr. insisted he could represent Harlem from his house in the Bahamas for as long as he liked — a theory Rangel disproved in the 1970 Democratic primary.
There is a chance neither model will be emulated this year.