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Plum Posts Create Risks in Anti-Incumbent Year

The behind-the-scenes jockeying this month for a spot on the House’s most coveted committee was intense. But the spoils of power aren’t what they used to be, and even the sophomore lawmaker who ultimately claimed the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) seat on the Appropriations Committee says he’s not counting on his new stature to ensure victory in November.

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), who squeaked into office in 2006 in a district that twice voted for George W. Bush, acknowledged that being one of the Democrats who doles out the bacon back home could be a double-edged sword, providing fodder for Republicans looking to oust him in what Democrats fear is shaping up to be an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington midterm election.

“They’ll try to do everything they can,” he said. “They’ll throw everything but the kitchen sink at us.”

Murphy — who beat out a field of hopefuls, several more senior than he, for the post — said he still hoped his new committee assignment would give him “a platform for bringing health back to the district and cutting wasteful spending.” Implicit in Murphy’s comments, however, is a sensitivity to the possibility that it could be dangerous in the current political climate to focus solely on funneling money home without also stressing fiscal responsibility.

Democrats in competitive races had a serious gut check last week when 14-term incumbent and senior House Appropriations Committee member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) lost his primary election. Although ethical questions about his earmarking practices were a major issue in Mollohan’s race, the loss — which came on the heels of Sen. Bob Bennett’s (R-Utah) primary ouster May 8 — drove home for many lawmakers the very real danger of voters taking their angst against Washington out on its most entrenched legislators. Vulnerable Democrats’ skittishness likely will escalate this week if either of the two Democratic Senators facing serious primary challenges today — Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) — don’t come out on top. Not since 1980 has more than one sitting Senator been defeated in a primary in a single campaign cycle.

The fact that both Mollohan and Bennett are appropriators, the most plum committee assignment of all, also underscored for vulnerable Democrats that a seat on a powerful committee such as Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce or even Appropriations might not provide much insulation this campaign cycle.

Besides Mollohan, there are a handful of other Democratic appropriators in competitive races this year, including Reps. Allen Boyd (Fla.) and Chet Edwards (Texas).

“This is about the strongest anti-incumbency I’ve ever seen,” Boyd said, adding that he was not sure whether a slot in the Appropriations Committee would gain much ground for him with voters.

“There may be for some people, but to others it doesn’t matter,” said Boyd, a former leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition who faces a primary challenge in August from former state Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson.

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