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Throwing ‘da bums’ out of Congress

Gary Caruso | Friday, November 10, 2006

Next January, Congressman Chris Chocola will no longer represent the Notre Dame campus nor the surrounding 2nd District of Indiana in the U.S. House of Representatives. Remarkably on Tuesday, he and two other incumbent Republicans lost reelection bids in a formerly reliable conservative Indiana. Ironically, Chocola’s margin of loss was just shy of the margin he lost by in St. Joseph County. Most importantly, the three new Democratic representatives from Indiana, when combined with Pennsylvania’s four new Democratic pick-ups, accounted for half of the total necessary to change control in the House. It was evident early in the evening that Democrats would win the House.

Exit polls nationally showed that voters who wanted a change in Washington gave four reasons – the economy, corruption, terrorism and the Iraq war. No one category stood alone at the top of the list since they broke into nearly equal percentages. Contrary to pundits who opined that the election was primarily about Iraq, large numbers of Republicans and many more Independents rebelled against the sex and influence peddling scandals in Congress. Voters rejected the political loyalty Republican leaders placed in favor of their rank-and-file members over illegal bribes or the welfare of teenage page boys.

The voters’ net cast wide and far across America as Democrats captured nearly 30 new House seats and the 6 seats necessary to control the U.S. Senate. History has shown that whenever a national tide engulfs the House, it also sweeps a new party into the Senate. Considering that current gerrymandering has reduced the number of competitive House districts today, this year’s tidal wave was just as large as the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 against President Clinton or the Democratic takeover in 1986 against President Reagan. Noting that both of New Hampshire’s congressional Republicans were defeated in a combined area that covered the entire state, those Republican senators should be thankful that neither of them faced reelection this year. Moreover, the types of Republican House seats in play this year came from scandal-ridden, hypocritical, lazy or sloppy incumbents who had lost touch with their constituencies.

For example, Congressman Jim Ryun in the 2nd District of Kansas, best known for his religious evangelicalism, as an American Olympian and as the first high school student to break the 4-minute mile running record, lost his House seat on Tuesday. The ethical scandals on Capitol Hill and Florida Congressman Mark Foley’s sexual advances toward teenage page boys tilted the finish line away from Ryun’s field. Notre Dame classmate Steve Pallucca, who lives in that Southeast Kansas district, described how voters viewed Ryun. When asked how he would vote, one man sitting at a bar watching college football said with the typically dry humor of the region, “Ryun is running ads that say he has been fighting for me for 35 years. Hell, I figure that if he hasn’t won by now it’s time for someone else.”

In the Senate, no two pivotal races tell both ends of this year’s electoral mood than the defeats of Republicans Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania or Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. Santorum embraced the Bush Administration policies on taxes, terrorism, government spending and the war in Iraq. Chafee, on the other hand, distanced himself as dramatically as anyone, even suggesting that it was a dirty campaign trick for New York Senator Hillary Clinton – who voted for the war in Iraq – to campaign against Chafee who also voted to go to war. Ultimately, Santorum, Chafee and the other four Republican incumbent senators targeted by Democrats lost their races which handed over control of the Senate.

Sadly, undercurrents of racism surfaced in Tennessee and Pennsylvania. The Republican National Committee’s advertising in Tennessee suggested that Democratic Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., sought white Playboy bunnies at a Super Bowl party. That television ad moved voters away from the African-American candidate. In Pennsylvania, while no overt advertising aired against gubernatorial Republican candidate and former Pittsburgh Steeler great Lynn Swann, he garnered 60,000 fewer votes than Santorum who also lost his statewide race.

No Democratic congressional incumbent lost a seat in Tuesday’s general election. That statistic alone speaks volumes about the dissatisfaction with President Bush, the Iraqi war and the ethically challenged Republican Congress. This election sent a message to Washington that among the troop killings that seem to be necessary at times, the killings still need to end. This election forced the American public to halt Bush’s overreaching actions and change direction. Finally, good and decent Americans used this election to repudiate a disgraced Republican Congress by discarding Rush Limbaugh’s talking points to place their trust in Democratic hands.

According to my Kansas friend who quotes the Little Rascals, “I don’t know where weeze going, but weeze on our way.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a

legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.