Coming three days after Utah Republicans denied renomination to three-term Sen. Robert F. Bennett, the defeat Tuesday of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D.-W.Va.), who served 28 years in the House, at the hands of one-term State Sen. Mike Oliviero clearly made incumbent lawmakers wonder: How safe am I in 2010?
It is rare to find incumbent members of Congress losing in their own party primaries.
More often than not, such intraparty losses are the result of a major scandal involving the incumbent. Only four House members (one Democrat, three Republicans) lost renomination in 2008, only two in ’06 and two in ’04. To find a double-digit number of sitting House members who lost primaries, one has to go back to 1992. And that was after redistricting, when many House incumbents were forced to run against one another in newly carved districts.
In West Virginia, the defeat of a sitting House member is unprecedented in modern times. Mollohan himself won a primary over fellow Rep. Harley Staggers, Jr. in 1992 and liberal Rep. Ken Hechler beat the more conservative Rep. James Kee in the 1970 Democratic primary. But in both cases, incumbents beat other incumbents who were thrown together in the same district. Hence, the press attention on Oliviero rolling up 56% of the vote against Mollohan (whose father Bob held the same district from 1954-56 and then from 1968 until ’82, when Alan won it).
Oliviero is an intriguing candidate in his own right. A past state chairman of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, Oliviero was backed by the National Right to Life Committee and denounced Mollohan for voting for the Obama-backed healthcare bill. On the surface value, Oliviero seems a surprisingly conservative Democrat, although Republicans were noting that he voted for a major tax increase during his lone term in the senate. (Former State GOP Chairman David McKinley, who topped the Republican primary in the 1st District, had clearly hoped to run against Mollohan but is now likely to focus his fire on Oliviero’s tax vote).
It is inarguable that the four-year-old case that Mollohan was “ethically challenged” finally caught up with him. In April 2006, the National Legal and Policy Center issued a 500-page report charging that the congressman had listed 250 alleged misrepresentations and omissions in his financial disclosure forms. Charging that he was the target of an “ultraconservative organization in Washington,” Mollohan tried to explain away as “a limited number of inadvertent errors:” understating his income from a property-holding company in which he and his wife have a 50% stake, failure to report $2.3 million in loans he took out to benefit the business, a note receivable from the same business of between $1 million-$5 million, his wife’s purchase for $37,461 of a one-third interest in a company that owns the Ramada Inn in Morgantown, W.Va., and understating the size of a $1.5 million construction loan.
In addition, the Wall Street Journal had charged that Mollohan had made real estate investments with former staffers who were now nonprofit officials and that these investments raised his net worth from $565,000 to at least $6 million in four years.
Mollohan survived ’06 and ’08, but in 2010, Oliviero hit this hard and denounced the congressman as “one of the most corrupt members of Congress.”
The primary results were vindication for the National Legal and Policy Center.
Coming so early in the election season, the Mollohan defeat has to make one consider the prospect of other long-standing incumbents going down. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that less than a third of voters said they would support their own congressmen’s reelection—“numbers that haven’t been seen in the Post/ABC data since Republicans took over Congress in 1994.
How this plays out, whether there are more Alan Mollohans in the primary season, and the political wallop packed by anti-incumbency will surely be a story worth watching as it unfolds in 2010.