Follow the GOP Leaders (Out the Door)
If you want a clear illustration of how the GOP's fortunes have changed on Capitol Hill, flash back to this date six years ago. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) was Speaker of a Republican-dominated House, with Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas) serving as his chief lieutenant and strategist. Tom Davis (Va.) was in charge of the National Republican Congressional Committee, en route to gaining seats for his party in the 2002 elections. And Trent Lott (Miss.) was Minority Leader in a narrowly divided Senate, poised to take over the chamber when the GOP re-captured control that November.
Now? Hastert and DeLay are gone, and their seats have gone Democratic. Davis is retiring, with his district in serious peril. And Lott resigned last year just in time to preserve his earning power as a lobbyist. His Senate seat now also appears in danger of going Democratic, as the GOP has already lost a House seat as the dominoes have fallen from Lott's departure.
The irony here is that, as members of the leadership, all of these men were expected to put their party's interests ahead of their own. They each barnstormed the country, raising millions of dollars for the GOP, recruiting challenger candidates, bolstering incumbents and preaching the importance of helping the team. Yet each of them, in one way or another, has exited Congress in a fashion that hurt their own party:
1) DeLay became enmeshed in the Jack Abramoff scandal and was indicted by a grand jury in Texas for his fundraising activities, forcing him to surrender his leadership position. At the height of his troubles in 2006, he dropped out of his re-election race too late for the GOP to get another candidate on the ballot. Rep. Nick Lampson (D) won the seat, despite its strong Republican lean.
2) After losing the Speakership when Republicans lost power in 2006, Hastert could have served out the 110th Congress and simply not run for re-election. Instead, he chose to resign in November 2007, precipitating a costly special election when his party could hardly afford it. And to make matters worse, Hastert backed a deeply flawed candidate, Jim Oberweis, to replace him. Oberweis lost the special election in March.
3) Lott, who was exiled from leadership in 2002 but fought his way back to be Majority Whip this Congress, also decided to resign in 2007, conveniently leaving the Senate just before tougher restrictions on lobbying by former members went into effect. He was replaced by Roger Wicker (R), who now appears to be locked in a surprisingly tough fight for November. And Wicker's House seat is gone, having been scooped up by Democrats in another expensive, bruising special election.
4) Davis, at least, is simply retiring, not resigning. But his Northern Virginia seat is in serious danger of going to the Democrats. And Davis has been quite outspoken in criticizing the GOP's current strategy and message. It may take awhile to rebuild the Republican brand, but Davis won't be around to help that effort.
It doesn't end there. Davis' successor as NRCC chairman, Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), is also retiring from a seat that is vulnerable to a takeover. When they ran the campaign arm, both men practically begged their colleagues not to resign or retire, warning against the dangers of open seats. Now that their party is outside of power, they're doing exactly what they counseled against.
Of course, every member leaves Congress at some point; none of these leaders was expected to stick around forever. But they were at least expected to depart in ways that didn't cause extra headaches for their colleagues.
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