TERM LIMIT TURMOIL
As the 2004 election cycle begins, a number of U.S. House members from both parties are grappling with self-imposed term limits. In elections in the early and mid-1990s, when the issue was much in the news, many Republicans running for Congress for the first time signed pledges to limit their tenure in Congress-usually to three terms, but sometimes to as many as six.
In all likelihood, few of the candidates who took the pledge ever believed for a moment that Republicans would have a majority. With control of the House in their hands, however, a number of them are having second thoughts about what they now call “unilateral disarmament” and are breaking the pledge or thinking of doing so.
For example, conservative Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, whose self-imposed three-term tenure ends next year, recently announced that he felt it was a mistake to have embraced term limits and that he intends to break his pledge and run again.
On the other hand, there are lawmakers who will abide by their pledge and have no regrets about making it in the first place. “It’s kind of exhilarating to know you are going to be leaving at a particular time, so you can do what you really believe without regard to political consequences,” Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey told me recently. Toomey and South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, both stalwart conservative Republicans, have long reiterated their determination to keep their 1998 campaign promise and retire from the House after six years (although both are strongly eyeing bids for the Senate next year).
Despite the fury of the U.S. Term Limits group, which has launched independent expenditures against House members who have violated their written three-terms-and-out pledges, no congressman who broke his term limit pledge has ever been defeated. Here’s a look at two lawmakers-one a Republican and one a Democrat-and how they are dealing with term limits. . .
KEEPING THE PLEDGE
“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend [term limits] for other House members, but it was the right thing for me and I’m doing it,” Rep. Nick Smith (R.-Mich.) told me two weeks ago. Elected from the Water Wonderland’s heavily Republican 7th District after it was created in 1992, farmer and then-State Sen. Smith won over three strong primary opponents in good part because of his large extended family throughout the district (Jackson-Battle Creek) and his strong backing from the Michigan Right-to-Life organization. The iconoclastic Smith pledged never to take money from political action committees and to limit his tenure in the Congress to 12 years. He remained faithful to both promises.
At 68, Smith (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89%) felt it was time to leave. But he emphasized that it was more his belief in keeping his word than any age factor that led him to announce ’04 would be his last year.
The congressman also revealed that he had told the House Republican Steering Committee during the committee chairman selection process last month that even if he achieved his goal of chairing the Agriculture Committee he would still honor his pledge and retire in two years. (Smith, the only candidate for chairman to oppose the President’s huge farm bill last year and to vote consistently against farm subsidies, was passed over in favor of Virginia’s Bob Goodlatte, who supported both costly measures.)
The 7th District remains as solidly Republican as it was when Smith first won it 11 years ago, and the GOP primary should decide his successor. Within hours of his announcement, the name on the lips of most area pundits and pols was that of former State Sen. Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek, the runner-up to Smith in the ’92 primary.
Abortion was the pivotal issue in their contest, with physician Schwarz taking the pro-abortion stand and Smith backing the right to life. Smith won, 43% to 36%. Three years ago, Schwarz broke with then-Gov. John Engler and most elected Republicans in his state and became campaign chairman for the presidential primary bid of his old Vietnam comrade-in-arms, John McCain. In a dramatic upset that revived his campaign after his loss in South Carolina days before, McCain took Michigan over George W. Bush.
Last year, Schwarz was again the maverick when he ran unsuccessfully against conservative Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus for the Republican nomination for governor.
Although Schwarz, 65, is the best known of the probable House candidates, the big questions are whether he has made enough enemies on the right to weaken him as a contender, and whether the conservative/pro-life vote will be fragmented in the primary. Among the other prospects for the Republican nomination to succeed Smith are State Rep. Clark Bisbee of Jackson (who has just launched a campaign committee), State Sen. Phil Hoffman of Horton, and Calhoun County Clerk Ann Norlander-all of whom are considered sharply to the right of Schwarz.
BACKING OFF, BLUEGRASS-STYLE
Kentucky State Republican Chairman Ellen Williams was energetically handing out news releases to reporters and guests in general at the Republican National Committee meeting two weeks ago in Washington. She wanted everyone to know about the recent announcement of Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas that he would run again next year, thus breaking a key promise made during his first House race in 1998 that he would retire after three terms. In Williams’ words, “I don’t care what you think of the term limit issue or how popular it is-he broke his word to the voters!”
Lucas explained that his concerns over the economy and the war on terrorism had convinced him he had to run again. Back when he was first elected five years ago, the 4th District lawmaker told reporters that “there was a vibrant national term limit movement in America that I was involved with. Since then, popular support for term limits has evaporated and the movement has all but ended.”
Apart from breaking his promise, the 69-year-old Lucas (lifetime ACU rating: 64%) is already one of the most vulnerable House Democrats up for election next year. In 1998, when then-Rep. Jim Bunning (R.) left the seat to successfully run for the Senate, self-styled “Blue Dog Democrat” and then-Boone County Judge-Executive Lucas won a dramatic upset in the Louisville-area district, which had been in Republican hands for all but two of the previous 36 years. His victory was due in good part to a divisive primary battle between two GOP candidates vying to succeed Bunning and considerable negative press about the eventual nominee. Taking stands not unlike those of most Republicans-in his words, “common sense conservative, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-business”-Lucas won with 53% of the vote.
In his two subsequent trips to the polls, Lucas won with just 54% and 52%, underscoring his precarious political position.
Prior to the announcement of his political intentions for next year, no fewer than three Republicans had declared they would oppose Lucas in ’04: lawyer and ’02 nominee Geoff Davis, attorney Kevin Murphy of Erlanger, and Campbell County Judge-Executive Steve Pendery. Hunter Bates, formerly a top aide to Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), had been a fourth GOP possibility, but Bates was instead tapped by Rep. Ernie Fletcher to be his lieutenant governor running mate in Fletcher’s bid for the Republican nomination for governor this year.
With the decision of Kentucky Rep. Fletcher to run for governor, his longtime top aide, Daniel Groves, has left the congressional office to run the campaign. Groves, who managed Fletcher’s initial race for Congress in 1998, was succeeded as chief of staff by one of the savviest conservative operatives on Capitol Hill: Pam Mattox, formerly a staffer to California Republican Representatives Robert Lagomarsino (1974-92) and Wally Herger. . . .
Georgia on Their Minds: While the race to succeed retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D.-Ga.) dominates talk among Georgia Republicans these days, easily the second-most-discussed topic is who will succeed Ralph Reed as state party chairman. The former Christian Coalition head recently announced he’s giving up the party helm, thus setting in motion an interesting process: Although just-elected GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue would be expected to name the party chairman, the Republican state committee in Georgia has been independently electing chairmen for so long that many believe it will be difficult for members to yield their powers to anyone-even the first Republican governor of the Peach State in 130 years. Among those mentioned to succeed Reed are John Watson, Perdue’s campaign manager, and former Bush White House staffer Dylan Glenn. Glenn, who is black, is a former U.S. House candidate and presently No. 2 man on Perdue’s staff.