Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is playing defense against Democrats looking to knock him off in 2008. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is facing a challenge from the left and watching her approval numbers dip to new lows. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) is similarly losing ground with Nevadans and already is laying the groundwork for a re-election bid three years away. And even the electorally safe House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) isn’t winning any popularity contests nationally.
No longer, it seems, do House and Senate leaders have an easy time staying on solid ground with voters, while guiding their diverse conferences through increasingly partisan battles in Congress. And their rivals aren’t making it any easier for them, as both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that they relish the idea of replaying the GOP’s historic ouster of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004.
The dynamic translates into a difficult environment for today’s Congressional leaders, who are now forced to spend more time at home and raising money for themselves rather than helping bolster their party’s numbers. What’s more, the distraction of their own electoral standing takes away from attention they could otherwise pay to strengthening their positions on Capitol Hill.
“It used to be leaders were safe,” acknowledged Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Ensign added that, “at least for the top people — both sides are looking for the bigger prize” of defeating a sitting leader. And however rare that may be, Ensign said today’s House and Senate leaders are no longer left alone to serve for years unscathed by the opposition party.
“It’s a different world, a different dynamic than we’ve tended to see in the past,” agreed Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer. “We’ve seen leaders lose before ... but it was a rarity that any leader had any problems in their districts.”
‘It All Goes With the Job These Days’
Congressional leaders have struggled with the balancing act before, and not always successfully. In addition to Daschle, Republicans were able to knock off embattled Democratic Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.) in 1994, and in 1950, the GOP successfully toppled then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas (D-Ill.).
Members and observers alike say that today’s leaders need to expect that part of the job is to be a target for the opposing party, especially in an increasingly partisan political environment with a closely divided electorate.
Plus, party operatives now make it part of their job to try to make leaders vulnerable, if for nothing else but to divert them away from their leadership duties and weaken their influence in Congress. Additionally, House and Senate leaders’ rivals hope to send a message to other candidates and incumbents that no incumbent is safe — and if a seemingly popular leader’s standing is in question, then their’s can be, too.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.