In Small States, Close Ties Often Trump Bitter Partisanship

Posted October 5, 2005 at 6:19pm

Historically, being an incumbent Senator or governor in a small state has meant enjoying near-bulletproof job security.

Sure, small states frequently play host to fierce contests once a seat comes open, and weakened incumbents have been known to face major challengers. But as long as small-state Senators and governors avoid scandal and don’t alienate their constituents, they have generally remained safe from top-tier challengers. [IMGCAP(1)]

Some of it has to do with the typical advantages of incumbency — high name recognition, the ability to do favors for constituents and ready access to donors. But small-state incumbents have a secret weapon: Family ties, personal friendships and cross-party political alliances often are so closely intertwined that political titans are reluctant to challenge each other.

For a while, it looked like this pattern was changing. In 2002, then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), under intense pressure from the Bush White House, decided to skip a cakewalk of a governor’s race and instead challenge Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). Thune lost by the narrowest of margins, but he rebounded two years later, ousting then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

But the events of this past week have gone in a different direction. In eagerly awaited decisions announced last Friday and Monday, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) decided not to challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D), and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) announced that she would not challenge Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a lawmaker legendary in the state for his long tenure and political clout.

And that news followed the decisions by several other small-state House Members to stay put this cycle. Democratic Reps. Patrick Kennedy and James Langevin passed up a chance to challenge Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), and Rep. Jerry Moran was among many Kansas Republicans who declined to challenge Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D).

That leaves at least two noteworthy gubernatorial challenges in small states for 2006. In Nebraska, Rep. Tom Osborne, famous for coaching the University of Nebraska football team, is set to take on acting Gov. Dave Heineman in the Republican primary. And in Oklahoma, Rep. Ernest Istook (R) just announced Monday that he would challenge Gov. Brad Henry (D).

Why have concerted efforts by President Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove, to target Senate Democrats in red states fallen on deaf ears recently? Part of it may be the burden of a lame-duck presidency and a Republican Party with problems aplenty in Washington, D.C. But other explanations hit closer to home:

Two Degrees of Separation. The smaller the state, the more likely it is that the top political players — and their families and friends — will know each other personally.

“In small states, they have to take into account friendships even more than electability, because they have to live there, win or lose,” said Patrick Davis, a former political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Consider what happened during the 1974 Democratic primary for Senate, when then-Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers decided to challenge Sen. William Fulbright.

Bumpers won the primary — and went on to serve four terms in the Senate. But the race was so divisive that Bumpers recalls local newspapers writing about couples who divorced due to split loyalties.

“It was the most difficult decision I ever made in my life,” Bumpers recalled recently. “He was a good friend and a man I had supported every time he ran. But the polls we took in February of 1974 showed that he was very weak, and that even a couple of has-beens in the state would run him a race.”

This pattern holds true today. In 2002, Davis recalled, South Dakotans frequently complained, “You’re making us choose between our friend Tim Johnson and our friend John Thune.”

Donor Irritation. Being part of a small political elite also means sharing the same pool of donors. And donors, like average voters, don’t appreciate being forced to choose. “No matter what, they’re going to lose someone they had invested in and helped elect previously,” said David Dittman, an Alaska-based pollster.

In addition, the shortage of big donors in small states means that finding enough money to run a competitive race against a popular incumbent can require aggressive out-of-state fundraising — which can leave a candidate exposed to charges of focusing too much on out-of-state interests.

Risk Aversion. Politicians are naturally ambitious, but being overly ambitious can jeopardize one’s career. So many a politician has chosen to stay put rather than risk everything to climb up a notch. For many, their current elected office is too rewarding to risk a loss, noted Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic consultant in Connecticut.

While this pattern holds for big states, too, small-state Members of Congress have an extra disincentive to move up: An at-large House Member has nearly as much clout as a Senator.

“Why go through the trouble and expense of running against someone to end up about where you were?” Dittman asked. His state is a case in point: Alaska’s delegation was stable from 1980 to 2002.

Seniority Matters. For small states, Congressional seniority matters. So, the idea of a politician giving up a senior position in Congress to run for governor, or giving up the governorship to oust a senior Senator, is not usually considered a smart idea.

To be sure, Daschle, then the Senate Minority Leader, tried to make this argument in 2004, yet Thune won by touting his ties to the Bush White House and the Congressional majority. And two years earlier in Alaska, then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) gave up 22 years of seniority to run for governor and won. Still, losing Congressional seniority is one more consideration that a wavering politician has to take to heart.

“Unless the federal officeholder is particularly ineffective and the governor is fairly young, it’s probably a pretty hard sell,” Dittman said.

Putting Cooperation at Risk. Small-state politicians are known for collaborating across the aisle to safeguard key state priorities, and this legacy of shared struggles makes it that much harder for senior politicians to try to oust each other.

A few years ago, Todd Epp, then a Democratic activist in South Dakota, moderated a program at the University of South Dakota featuring Daschle and then-Gov. Bill Janklow (R). When the two talked about their working relationship, Epp recalled, “You could tell these two guys really did like and respect each other.”

In Delaware, voters have consistently rewarded elected officials who work well across the aisle, said Michael Ratchford, former chief of staff to Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.).

This harmony was broken, at least temporarily, in 2000, when outgoing Gov. Tom Carper (D) ran against five-term Sen. Bill Roth (R-Del.). Though Roth was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he was in his late 70s, and Carper was seen by voters as more vigorous. He won with 56 percent of the vote. While the sometimes-heated race rubbed many in the state the wrong way, the wounds healed relatively quickly, thanks to the long legacy of bipartisan cooperation, Ratchford said.

Alienating Voters. If there’s one thing no politician wants to do, it’s second-guess his or her constituents. Yet the decision to challenge an incumbent implicitly critiques voters’ past actions. And voters generally don’t appreciate that.

In 1986, popular four-term Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling (R) gave up his office, and then announced eight months later that he was challenging incumbent Sen. Patrick Leahy (D). While Leahy initially was seen as vulnerable, he ended up winning 63 percent of the vote.

“My theory is that when you’ve voted for both a Senator and a governor, and then one challenges the other, voters tend to resent the person who makes the choice to run,” said Luke Albee, a lobbyist and former longtime aide to Leahy. “Basically, the challenger is telling the people of the state, ‘You have been wrong, time and again, in voting for this guy, and you were too stupid to figure it out.’ And that is a real challenge for any candidate to overcome.”

Of course, none of this means that the nation’s heightened partisanship won’t coax more challengers into races against otherwise secure incumbents. But as the Hoeven and Capito examples suggest, don’t bet the farm on it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to Roll Call’s abbreviated publishing schedule during the next two weeks, the line-up of columns in the Politics section has changed. Shop Talk, which usually runs on Thursdays, will return on Oct. 20. Players and Out There will next appear on Oct. 11. Out There will return to its regular Wednesday slot on Oct. 19.