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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.
“I remember being with Nancy Pelosi, who was complaining about people demonstrating outside of her house in San Francisco,” McConnell said in a recent interview. “I was smiling, thinking that if the left is unhappy with Nancy, then it probably says that it all goes with the job these days — you become the focal point for people who are unhappy with you about whatever.”
A veteran Senate Democratic aide described it “as an unfortunate reality of being a leader today. Your opposition is going to put a bull’s-eye on you.”
That is clearly the case with McConnell, who is vying for a fifth term in conservative Kentucky and has come under a barrage of attacks from Democrats and leftist organizations for the better part of a year. Leaving nothing to chance, McConnell as of Wednesday had raised $9.8 million for his re-election this cycle and had $7.2 million in the bank, according to his campaign. But his approval ratings at home are stuck around the 50 percent mark.
While they have yet to recruit a challenger, Democrats say they believe McConnell is weak enough at home to make him a worthwhile target in 2008. They privately acknowledge that because McConnell is the leader, it is far easier to try to tie him to an unpopular president and his policies, while raising money and national attention to try to defeat him.
Asked whether he believes he would be targeted if he weren’t the GOP leader, McConnell responded: “Probably not. How focused they really are, we don’t know yet. I tell my friends, there’s a lot of opposition, but there’s not an opponent yet. But I will not be smug about this. I assume this is going to be a hard race.”
In many ways, McConnell — running as a Republican in a GOP-leaning state — has an advantage over a candidate like Daschle, who was trying to balance his role as the leader of a liberal Caucus while running for re-election in a conservative state. And while the war is increasingly unpopular, as is President Bush, the outgoing president still bested Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 20 points in Kentucky in 2004.
Democrats, however, believe the larger national focus on politics these days makes it easier to weaken an otherwise secure Senator.
“People in Texas are interested in Kentucky,” one Democratic operative suggested. “You see what’s happening in the blogs — races have more of a national following than they did 10 years ago. Then of course, any race involving the leader of a party has that much more of a national following because of the high-profile nature of it.”
Taking the Numbers Down
Perhaps that’s why Majority Leader Reid already is laying the groundwork to run for reelection in 2010, three years away. Reid has seen his home-state popularity fall in recent months to new lows, with an October Las Vegas Review-Journal poll showing his favorability at just 32 percent with Nevadans, compared with a 51 percent unfavorable ranking.
Nevada is a battleground state that Bush narrowly carried in 2004 with 51 percent of the vote. And while Reid won re-election handily in 2002 against a weak opponent, he barely eked out a victory over then-challenger and now-Sen. Ensign in 1996.
“I would have to think Reid — while it’s a long time off and a lot of things can happen — he has to be concerned,” Ornstein said.
A House Democratic leadership aide noted that the days where leaders were largely left alone by the opposing party are gone, citing the example that in Pelosi’s case, the Republicans spend a great deal of time “going after her, trying to distract her and take her numbers down.”
“For Pelosi, it’s not so much about going after her electorally,” the staffer said. “It’s about trying to take her numbers down, make her less effective and make her the symbol of any problems on the Democratic side.”
Indeed, Pelosi is in little danger of losing her bid for a 12th term representing San Francisco after having won with 81 percent of the vote in 2006. But the first female Speaker faces new challenges, balancing an extremely diverse Democratic Caucus while representing a liberal district where she is confronted by a leftist challenge in 2008 from anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.
And a recent Field Poll in California showed Pelosi has lost ground in her home state — showing that 40 percent of those surveyed disapproved of her performance, compared with 35 percent who are happy with the job she is doing. Not to be discounted, however, is the fact that the poll showed Democrats continue to fare better than Republicans in that state.
“When you are in a leadership position like Pelosi is, people are constantly shooting arrows at you,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “That’s the price of leadership. And on our side, to get things done you have to make certain compromises ... you have to make tough choices and sometimes those choices aren’t popular with all parts of your party.”
Vulnerables Need Not Apply?
In the House, both Pelosi and Boehner are far more secure in their districts than are their Senate counterparts, and most agree that neither is at any risk of losing their seats anytime soon. At the same time, however, Pelosi and Boehner face larger issues with their national popularity — especially as they look to fundraise nationally and campaign for candidates or challengers in key swing districts across the country.
Case in point, recent surveys conducted for Roll Call by SurveyUSA indicated that among those voters who recognized them, neither Pelosi nor Boehner are viewed positively in any of the seven battleground states tested, with their unfavorable rankings as high as nearly twice the level as their favorable marks. Similarly negative numbers were posted for Reid and McConnell across the board.
While the challenges may be greater for certain leaders, lawmakers and observers on all sides agree that it is tougher to take on the top job in the House or Senate these days. And some asked whether it might one day become impossible for Members who don’t hail from the safest districts to even take on those positions.
“There’s no question that not only will there be more reluctance for people — no matter how ambitious — from swing states to think about going for the brass ring, but I think [also] from the parties when they are looking at who they want to elect as leaders,” Ornstein said.
“It could have a real impact on the choices available and realistic choices available for leadership.”