Senate Democrats choose losers to lead
[Updated to correct date of Daschle defeat.] For the second time in less than a decade, the Senate Democrats are finding themselves with a leader facing political extinction. Tom Daschle, Harry Reid’s predecessor as the leader of the Senate Democrats, lost his own reelection race in 2002 in 2004, having become minority leader after the 2002 elections. For Democrats, this is not an unprecedented experience. In the 1950s, back-to-back Democratic leaders also lost their seats.
Checking out the relatively short history of the Senate Leader position shows that the Democrats have been more willing to choose vulnerable members. There have been only 11 Senate Democratic leaders (the position officially came into existence in 1920), and four have lost reelection campaigns.
Republicans have, in some ways, a happier success rate. The first Republican leader, though unofficial, was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who died in office in 1924. Including both of those men, of the Republicans’ 17 leaders (one was only acting), only one lost his reelection campaign, James Watson of Indiana in the FDR tidal wave of 1932. In other ways, not so happy. Five of their leaders have died in office (as opposed to only one for the Democrats).
There is no real explanation for the Democrats’ willingness to choose among the electorally vulnerable—each leadership election is unique and involves personality issues that have nothing to do with the history of the office. But, there are advantages to having a majority leader from a swing state. Just by dint of being elected in a state that could go either way, these Senators may be more attuned to the nation as a whole, and better able to pull the party from extreme positions. But the downside is that it may make them more vulnerable to losing—Reid became the face of the Democrats in the Senate, and as such is blamed by conservatives.
The Democrats can take comfort in the knowledge that it’s hard to believe Reid’s leadership position will be what cost him his seat—he would have been targeted anyway. He was vulnerable incumbent, and there is no reason to think he would have received any easier treatment from Republicans or conservative groups than Blanche Lincoln or Russ Feingold.
If Reid is out, the Democrats will not be trying for a three-peat. His most likely successors, Chuck Schumer or Dick Durbin, both reside in much safer seats.
Joshua Spivak is a PR executive and senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.