Single-minded seekers of re-nomination

Jul 17 '11

The NYT offered some insights today into the mindsets of House Republican freshmen, echoing earlier Washington Post articles (here, for example).   What seems unique about these freshmen is summed up in this declaration from Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY): “Re-election is the farthest thing from my mind.  Like many of my colleagues in the freshman class, I came down here to get our fiscal house in order and take care of the threat to national security that we see in the federal debt. We came here not to have long careers. We came here to do something. We don’t care about re-election.”

If we take these freshmen at their word, these articles raise a few issues for students of legislative politics.   I’ll just briefly (and very simply) flag two of them.

First, it may be time again to reconsider the fit of David Mayhew’s seminal work, Congress: The Electoral Connection, in a period of strongly polarized political parties.  Mayhew wrote in the early 1970s in a period before the legislative parties (and their respective activist bases) had begun their march to the poles.  In that context, Republican (or Democratic) legislators could be “single-minded seekers of re-election” without worrying as much about primary challenges from their party’s right (or left).  It may be that as the parties polarize, legislators become single minded seekers of re-nomination. Position taking on prominent issues might have been sufficient to garner re-election in a less polarized environment.  With re-nomination as legislators’ proximate goal, position taking might not suffice to secure primary voters’ support– especially if party activists are “purists” motivated by ideological benefits rather than “pragmatists” motivated by winning elections.  If so, we should expect to see many freshmen legislators refuse to concede their key fiscal priority of reducing the size and scope of government.  (Mayhew of course was explicit that re-election was a proximate goal– the goal that “must be achieved over and over if other ends are to be entertained.”)

Second, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that Republican legislators hail primarily from safe Republican seats.  As the figure below shows, two-thirds were elected in districts won by McCain in 2008, and over half of them garnered over 55 percent of the vote.

Staking out– and sticking t0– an uncompromising position on getting the nation’s fiscal house in order (albeit without raising new revenues) makes perfect electoral sense for most of the freshmen in this context.  I take these freshmen at their word that they don’t care about getting re-elected.  But keep in mind that their resolute policy prescriptions may help to ensure just that in their red-leaning districts.