Midterm Elections Oust Three Key U.S. House Chairmen
Last Tuesday, the Republican Party gained an astounding 64 seats in the United States House of Representatives, which was the third-largest gain in the history of midterm elections. In 1938, the Democratic Party, riding the coattails of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gained 72 House seats, and in the 1894 election the Republican Party gained a whopping 130 seats in the House of Representatives. Midterm elections are often a referendum on the party in power or the policies of the incumbent president. In the past 21 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost an average of 30 seats in the House of Representatives and four seats in the Senate.
Aside from regaining general control of the United States House of Representatives, the Republican Party also unseated three prominent committee chairmen: John Spratt (D-SC), Chairman of the House Budget Committee; Ike Skelton (D-MO), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; and, Jim Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In any other election, these long-serving incumbents might have been easily reelected. Not only was the 2010 midterm election a referendum on the policies of the Obama administration, it was a referendum on politics-as-usual, incumbency, and out-of-control spending. Each of these factors contributed to the demise of these long-serving incumbents.
One of the biggest upsets in the 2010 midterm elections came in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District. Comprising the northernmost counties in South Carolina, this area has not been represented by a Republican since 1883.
Incumbent Representative John M. Spratt, Jr., the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has represented this rural Congressional district since 1983. Since his inauguration in 1983, Senator Spratt has been one of the most highly respected members of Congress. State Magazine called him “one of his party’s most reliable bridges to the Republican side.” Additionally, National Journal, one of the nation’s preeminent political periodicals, featured him on its cover as one of the “standout members in the United States Congress.”
Representative Spratt’s penchant for bipartisanship and his strong work ethic have gained him the respect of members on both sides of the aisle. His most notable legislative accomplishment was the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Representative Spratt worked in conjunction with House Budget Committee Chairman, John Kasich (R-OH), to make this legislation a reality. Upon passage of this legislation, the United States witnessed unprecedented economic growth. But Spratt, upon assuming the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee in 2006, became one of the leading advocates of the liberal agenda. He was an outspoken supporter of TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), the auto industry bailout, and ObamaCare, all of which were unpopular in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District. His support for these costly and unpopular legislative initiatives led to his defeat in 2010.
Representative Spratt was defeated by political novice and Tea Party-endorsed candidate Nick Mulvaney, 55 percent to 44 percent. Spratt’s defeat leaves the Democrats scrambling for a Ranking Member on the House Budget Committee. It appears that a battle will ensue between Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) for this coveted position. On the Republican side, Paul Ryan (R-WI) will take over as Budget Committee Chairman. Under Ryan’s auspices, the House Budget Committee will attempt to reign in out-of-control spending, streamline the Congressional budgeting process, pass a balanced budget amendment, and begin deliberating on the future of Social Security. Spratt’s unexpected defeat leaves the Budget Committee without one of its most widely recognized members.
Another major blow to the Democratic Party came in Missouri’s 4th Congressional District, where incumbent Representative Isaac “Ike” Skelton, IV, was narrowly defeated by his Republican challenger, State Representative Vicky Hartzler, 50 percent to 45 percent. The 4th District, which comprises Jefferson City and the Kansas City suburbs, had not elected a Republican since 1953.
Prior to his election to the United States House of Representatives in 1976, Ike Skelton served as the prosecuting attorney for Lafayette County (1957-1960), Special Assistant Attorney General of Missouri (1961-1963), and as a member of the Missouri State Senate (1970-1976). Skelton has remained popular in this conservative-leaning district despite his liberal voting record. National Journal notes that in 2009, Representative Skelton voted with Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party 95 percent of the time. On domestic issues, Skelton has long followed the party line. He voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, against the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 and 1984, and for Cap and Trade.
Conversely, on national security and social issues, Skelton has compiled a somewhat more conservative voting record. Skelton is a supporter of traditional marriage, pro-life, opposed to embryonic stem cell research, and has long been an ardent supporter of the Iraq War. Perhaps his best-known legislative accomplishment on the national security front was the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation.
In 2006, after the Democratic Party regained control of the House of Representatives, Rep. Skelton was appointed chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Under his auspices, defense spending remained stagnant; the United States increased its troop presence in Afghanistan, and spending for the Iraq War increased. Skelton’s loss, coupled with the loss of John M. Spratt, Jr., the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, will propel Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) to the position of Ranking Member. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) will become the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The loss of this moderate and highly respected Democrat could leave liberals on the Armed Services Committee in a precarious position. While Rep. Ortiz is more than qualified to serve as the ranking member, he has been less willing to compromise with Republicans than his predecessor, Ike Skelton.
Maybe the most unexpected victory for the Republican Party came in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, which borders northwest Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. James Oberstar has represented this rural district since 1975, and it has not been represented by a Republican since 1947.
Prior to 2010, Representative Oberstar had never faced a formidable Republican challenge. In each of the three elections prior to 2010, Oberstar received well over 60 percent of the vote. Oberstar, an internationally recognized expert on aviation and aviation safety, has been a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee since the onset of his Congressional career. Prior to being appointed to the position of ranking member (2004) and then chairman (2006), Rep. Oberstar served as the ranking member of the powerful House Aviation subcommittee. In addition to serving as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Oberstar is the co-chairman of the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus and the co-chairman of the Great Lakes Task Force. Oberstar’s stoic and affable demeanor, coupled with his penchant for bipartisanship, has made him one of the most well-respected committee chairmen in the 111th Congress. Oberstar has worked hard with ranking member John Mica (R-FL) and Aviation Subcommittee Ranking Member, Tom Petri (R-WI), to ensure that the legislative priorities of both parties are afforded equal representation.
Jim Oberstar’s narrow defeat in 2010 came as a surprise to many political pundits. Representative Oberstar had never received less than 64 percent of the vote in any of his previous elections. In 2010, however, Oberstar garnered only 46 percent of the vote, compared to 48 percent for his Republican opponent, Chip Cravaack. The Duluth News Tribune, one of the leading newspapers in northern Minnesota, called Cravaack’s 4,400 vote victory over the 18-term incumbent “one of the biggest upsets in Minnesota political history.”
Oberstar is a hybrid when it comes to his policy positions. He is pro-life, a fervent supporter of the Second Amendment and traditional marriage, but opposed to free trade agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA), a supporter of the cigarette tax, corporate income tax and the capital gains tax, and was a vocal critic of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Oberstar’s loss to a political novice was precipitated by his recent support for ObamaCare, Cap and Trade, the auto industry bailout, TARP, his status as a “career politician” and his extremely high party loyalty score (97%). Of the three committee chairmen defeated in their bid for reelection last Tuesday, Oberstar’s loss was the most unexpected. But Oberstar’s liberal views on tax policy, government spending, and national security were incongruent with the views of his constituents and ultimately led to his defeat.
The 2010 election, like many other midterm elections, was a “wave election,” in which control of Congress flips from one party to the other. Now, more than ever, it is of paramount importance that conservatives lead by standing true to their principles of limited government, individual freedom, and fiscal restraint.
The National section of the Weekly Political Forecast is authored by PAI’s Deputy Policy Director.