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Nobody saw this one coming.
Sen. Mike Johanns, a reliably conservative Republican from Nebraska, announced yesterday (Feb. 18) he would retire rather than seek a second term in 2014 ... one where he was considered the overwhelming favorite. A former two-term governor and agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush, Johanns wrote his constituents an open letter that was also signed by his wife Stephanie:
"Words are inadequate to fully express our appreciation for the friendship and support you have given to us over the past three decades. With everything in life, there is a time and a season. At the end of this term, we will have been in public service over 32 years. Between the two of us, we have been on the ballot for primary and general elections 16 times and we have served in eight offices. It is time to close this chapter of our lives."
While it's still too early to catch their breaths, the consensus seems to be pointing towards GOP Gov. Dave Heineman, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term next year, as his likely successor. But let's not just yet rule out state Treasurer Don Stenberg, who has already made four unsuccessful bids for the Senate (1996, 2000, 2006 and 2012) and who might be inclined to run once again.
No one has mentioned this — certainly Johanns has not — but I wonder if his steadfast support for Chuck Hagel, his fellow Nebraska Republican, to be the next secretary of defense was a factor in his decision. The GOP has, for the moment anyway, blocked Hagel's nomination from reaching the Senate floor with a filibuster-like maneuver (known as the "filibuster"). Johanns was one of just two Republicans in the Senate who said he would vote for confirmation (the other being Thad Cochran of Mississippi). Was Johanns frustrated with his party, and did that play a role in him deciding he had had enough?
We'll certainly learn more in the days ahead. This is still a story in transition.
A completely different reaction greeted the announcement last week that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was also opting out of another term in 2014. The decision by Lautenberg, who at 89 is the oldest member of the Senate, was expected.
Johanns and Lautenberg join three other senators who have decided not to seek re-election next year: Democrats Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and Republican Saxby Chambliss (Ga.). In addition, everyone is awaiting word from two other senators who are up next year, Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Mississippi's Cochran. Stay tuned.
And we open the mailbag this week with a question that came in before Lautenberg's announcement:
Q: If Lautenberg decides to stand for re-election in 2014 would he, at the age of 90, be the oldest senator to run for re-election, or was Strom Thurmond (or someone else) older? — Greg Evangelatos, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada
A: Thurmond holds the record. The South Carolina Republican was re-elected to a sixth full term in 1996, less than a month before he turned 94. He served out his term, retiring at age 100. He died about six months later, on June 26, 2003.
Q: Is Chuck Hagel going to be confirmed or is he going to withdraw his nomination? It is shameful the Republicans are taking this unprecedented step. — Richard Warren, Providence, R.I.
A: I think he'll be confirmed the week the Senate comes back from its break (the vote is scheduled for Feb. 26). My guess is that he'll get the 60 votes to break the filibuster and then win confirmation on a majority vote.
As for it being unprecedented, it's true that no defense secretary nominee had ever been filibustered. But, for the record, Democrats forced a cloture vote on the nomination of Idaho Gov. (and former senator) Dirk Kempthorne to be President Bush's secretary of the interior in 2006. While his nomination was never in doubt and his supporters had no trouble rounding up the 60-plus votes to break any logjam, it's worth noting that among those Democrats who voted to hold up the nomination were Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Tom Harkin and Chuck Schumer.
Republicans were also passing around this story from Carl Hulse of the New York Times from Jan. 25, 2005, the beginning of Bush's second term:
"Trying to show that they remain a force despite their reduced numbers, Senate Democrats on Monday threatened new hurdles for President Bush's cabinet choices. ...
The political problems for the nominees arose after Democrats last week blocked a quick vote on the approval of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. As many as a dozen Democrats intend to use the Senate floor on Tuesday as a platform to lay out their objections to Ms. Rice, tying her to what they see as the administration's mistakes in Iraq. ...
Democrats conceded that the new 55-45 split against them in the Senate put them at a severe disadvantage in pushing their legislative ideas or derailing those they did not like. ... Yet they also demonstrated a willingness to use procedural weapons to make their points, even at the risk of being branded obstructionists."
But Steve Kornacki, writing in Salon, argues that the previous Democratic-inspired holdups and the GOP halt of Hagel are not comparable. In any event, writes Kornacki, there are "serious short- and long-term consequences to all of this":
"If Republicans are actually able to derail Hagel with a filibuster, it would shatter tradition and might lead to similar filibusters in the future — both for Obama's nominees and for nominees of future presidents from both parties. It could also spur Reid to rethink his resistance to major Senate rules changes and to reopen the idea of using the nuclear option. And even if the filibuster is broken, a mostly party-line vote on Hagel's confirmation could set a bad example too. After all, the White House's party controls the Senate now, so it theoretically has the votes to confirm its nominees (assuming they get up/down votes). But what happens if party-line votes for Cabinet picks become the norm and, sometime in the not-so-distant future, the White House's party is in the minority in the Senate?"
Republican battles. Last week's Political Junkie column — "More Self-Examination in the GOP" — focused on Karl Rove's latest effort, the Conservative Victory Project, which is designed to take sides in party primaries, especially when there is the chance that a very right-wing candidate (say, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010) could win the GOP contest but would likely get creamed in November.
I wrote that Rove's aim is — unlike, say, the classic Goldwater vs. Rockefeller or the Reagan vs. Ford battles of the past — more about winning than ideology.
Not everyone agreed.
Craig Shirley, the conservative consultant and Reagan biographer, writes, "You are wrong. This IS about ideology, not about winning. The conservatives want to win more than the Rovians." He adds that the beginnings of the Tea Party came during the Bush years, not Obama. "The Tea Party rose up to oppose Bush and McCain on immigration. When they got their name is meaningless. It is what they were doing and when that counts. Truth be told, the movement found its roots in opposition to Harriet Miers. Karl Rove and George Bush created the Tea Party by pursuing Big Government Republicanism and thus driving populist conservatives out of the GOP. And TARP was the final knife in the back."
Similarly, a release from Club for Growth President Chris Chocola takes on former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and other Republicans who are aligned with Rove's idea: "The truth is, while the Club for Growth PAC has helped elect more Republicans to Congress than just about any other group, our mission and Haley Barbour's mission are just plain different. Haley wants every Republican to win, regardless of how they vote in office. The Club for Growth PAC helps elect candidates who support limited government and free markets. Unfortunately, the two goals coincide less often than the Republican Establishment cares to admit. "
Patrick Davis of Colorado Springs, Colo., says a "good example where the establishment got it wrong" was in the 2006 Rhode Island GOP primary, when the establishment backed liberal Sen. Lincoln Chafee over conservative challenger Steve Laffey. The argument at the time for Chafee was that only he could hold the seat that year for the Republicans in solidly blue Rhode Island. But he couldn't.
But Gary Charles of Indianapolis writes, "I'm no Karl Rove fan but someone has got to keep the party from nominating wackos like [Missouri's Todd] Akin and [Indiana's Richard] Mourdock and [Delaware's] O'Donnell. We can put up all the candidates that will make the Tea Party happy, but at the same time we'll keep the Democrats in control of the Senate forever."
"Bill W." wrote on the column's comments page, "I respect your insights — always have. But on this one I think you're off-base. It *is* about the ideology. And that is even more the case given that, as you describe it, 'there really isn't a viable 'moderate' wing of the party any more.' They've alienated (and appalled) almost every moderate voter that remains in the country."
Other comments include this one from "Cat's Paw": "Moderate Publican voters MUST take interest in primaries, and mid-terms, and kick out extremists, rather than the other way around."
"Feettothefire": "Hey, this is the party that put up Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and 'Mr. I'll pretend to believe whatever you want me to believe.' This is the party that, in two elections in a row, put up nominees they didn't even like. If you can't master the art of picking a candidate most of you like, what can you master?"
And "Mister Zurkon" says, "As long as they insist on embracing caricatures like O'Reilly and Trump, they will see more and more defeat."
Illinois' 2nd CD update: The end of Jesse Jackson Jr.'s public career is now complete. Considering that he was already on the ropes when his name came up in the investigation over then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's selling of Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder, one would have thought that Jackson would have put aside any thoughts of illicit behavior. Instead, according to federal prosecutors, the congressman from Chicago's far South Side spent some $750,000 in campaign funds to aid a lavish personal lifestyle — furs, jewelry and celebrity memorabilia. This buying spree commenced in 2007 and went on for four years — which, given the suspicions of him and his finances regarding Blago and the Senate seat, is just incredible.
In any event, Jackson is gone. He disappeared from public view in June and resigned his House seat last November, not long after winning re-election with a customary landslide. And with the charges that were filed on Friday — and Jackson not contesting them — he is likely going to be sent to prison.
Another ignominious ending for a disgraced congressman from the 2nd District.
It looks like his successor will be former state Rep. Robin Kelly. Yes, there's still a Feb. 26 primary to take place, not to mention an April 9 general election. But Kelly seems to have outlasted most of her rivals. Once, when there were a gazillion candidates in the race, almost all of them African Americans, black leaders were fretting that a split in the vote could well elect Debbie Halvorson, a former one-term House member (from another district), who is white and who took on Jackson in the 2012 Dem primary and got clobbered. Residing in the suburban, very southern part of the district that is overwhelmingly white, she had previously been leading in the polls. But one by one, the other candidates have been dropping out. The latest to do so is state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, whose past positions opposing limiting assault weapons became an issue in this district that has seen so many lives lost to gun violence. She quit the race on Sunday and immediately endorsed Kelly. (Other candidates to withdraw and back Kelly include state Sens. Napoleon Harris and Donne Trotter. U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush, Danny Davis and Jan Schakowsky are with her as well.)
With Jackson now a distant memory, the election is in fact about guns. The super PAC of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, has become a huge presence in the race, running TV ads attacking both Halvorson and Hutchinson for their past support by the NRA.
Others in the race include ex-Rep. Mel Reynolds, Jackson's predecessor who resigned in 1995 following a sex scandal, and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale. Reynolds is not thought to be a factor.
Remember the Maine. Regarding my list of senators from the same state who previously had run against each other, Joshua Holman of Havelock, N.C., adds one more: Angus King and Susan Collins, in the 1994 gov. race. King, an independent then as well as now, defeated Collins, the GOP candidate, as well as Dem nominee Joe Brennan, a former governor.
Happy Presidents Day. The holiday may be over, but it lives on in The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia. The new book is an entertaining, enjoyable and informative look at the nation's 43 presidents (not 44 — see Cleveland, Grover) and every possible subtopic. The good news: the stuff in this book is not nearly as arcane (insane?) as the questions I offer on Wednesday's Talk of the Nation, although it comes pretty close ... as in, "Which first lady kept a pet raccoon at the White House?" Here's a fun review of the book by Annie Groer in the Washington Post.
And speaking of trivia, last week's TOTN trivia question was: What state has gone the longest since last defeating a governor seeking re-election? Obviously, it couldn't be Virginia, because its governor may not seek consecutive terms there. North Carolina has also never defeated a governor seeking another term. And, for reasons explained on last week's show, the question also ruled out Pennsylvania and Indiana, which for the record last defeated incumbent governors seeking re-election in 1854 and 1843 respectfully. I was looking for an answer in more modern times.
And that answer is ... Tennessee. In 1952, Gordon Browning was beaten in the Democratic primary by Frank Clement.
The two other states whose governors were last defeated in the 1950s are Connecticut (John Davis Lodge in '54) and Utah (J. Bracken Lee in '56).
Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.
Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on the State of the Union message with former presidential speechwriters Paul Glastris (Clinton), editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly, and Peter Robinson (Reagan) of the Hoover Institution. You can listen to the segment here:
Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.
And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a Political Junkie T-shirt but also a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??
ON THE CALENDAR:
Feb. 26 — Expected Senate vote for confirmation of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. Also: Special primary in Illinois' 2nd CD to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), who resigned. (General election: April 9)
March 19 — Special primary in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District to replace Tim Scott (R), who was appointed to the Senate.
April 2 — Runoff in S.C. 01. (General election: May 7.)
April 30 — Special Massachusetts Senate primary.
June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned.
June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, who is now secretary of state.
Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********
This day in campaign history: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama runs his winning streak in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes to ten, taking the Wisconsin primary and Hawaii caucuses and dealing a critical blow to the chances of Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. In Wisconsin, which was the most negative contest between Obama and Clinton thus far, Obama carried it 58-41 percent. In Hawaii, where he was born, his margin was 76-24 percent. On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona easily defeats former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in both the Wisconsin and Washington primaries, moving him closer to clinching the GOP nomination (Feb. 19, 2008).
Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: email@example.com
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