Lame Ducks

November 13, 2014

Lame duck” in politics refers to an office-holder after his or her last election, and to a legislative session after an election and before the winners have been sworn in. (The link, to a delightful 2009 article from the Denver Post by Ed Quillen about the origins of the term, uses a narrower definition, referring only to “an office-holder whose replacement has been elected but not sworn in.”)

Favorite gasbag Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has been erupting, of late, about lame ducks. Here he is, on Breitbart News Sunday:

I don’t think Congress should come back for a lame duck. I think the idea of having a bunch of Senators who have just been thrown out of office set any meaningful policy doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s unpack this drivel. We’ll do so, by the way, without going into the fact that when a new party takes over the Senate or House as a result of November elections it always wants to make sure nothing happens until it takes over in January! Instead, we’ll use these things called “facts” and, as well, mathematics.

There are 100 United States Senators. Thirty-six seats were up in 2014, made up of the usual one-third of the Senate (34 this time), plus two seats up in special elections. Thus, 64 Senators were not even involved in an election, much less “thrown out of office.”

In 23 of the 36 elections, incumbents won. The 64 plus 23 equals 87 Senators—so far in our analysis—who were not “thrown out of office.” The “bunch” feels pretty small, and we’re not even done ciphering!

In the 13 remaining elections, one incumbent is in a run off. Of the remaining 12 elections, eight involved no incumbent, which means we have at least 95 sitting U.S. Senators (87 + 8), right here, right now, who were not “thrown out of office.” That means no more than 5% of the Senators who were “thrown out of office.”

So who comprises the “bunch of Senators who have just been thrown out of office?” The incumbent in the run off is Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. And those who lost for sure are Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. That’s it; that’s all! Three guys named Mark, and two women, maybe!

Congress is made up of two houses, a fact which Senator Cruz may not have been focusing on. The House of Representatives has 435 members when it is fully filled. That’s a big number, so any detailed evaluation requires more effort than I care to put forth, even for you’ll. Alas, Incumbents Who Lost Seats Tonight by Anne Johnson for National Public Radio did some of the work for me, reporting that three incumbent Rs and 10 incumbent Ds in the House lost. The D number is greater now (I saw 13 somewhere, and it may be 14 or 15), and the story did not identify the 20 or so incumbents who retired. Regardless, maybe 4% of the House is comprised of Members of Congress who were “thrown out of office.”

So, Senator Cruz:  We pay you, and all of you, to work for us! For six years! Get to work, you and all of you!

Private space for political junkies only:

I have lambasted Democrats for a terrible 2014 campaign, and it was poorly “themed” and executed, for sure. That said, and assuming Senator Landrieu loses, let’s look at what happened in the Senate. Incumbents lost in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, and North Carolina. A Democrat losing, in any of these states save Colorado, should surprise no one. Maybe North Carolina gets some people thinking a little bit, but the other three states are red through and through.

As for vacant seats, Democrats held the seat in Michigan and lost seats in Iowa, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. If Tom Harkin (Iowa), Max Baucus (Montana), or Jay Rockefeller (West Virginia) had run again, it’s hard to imagine any of them losing. All, however, were never totally in step with their states, and each of their “stories” can be explained by history and personality. (Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota had a stroke several years ago, was re-elected, and there are fair questions about whether he could continue to serve effectively.)

So, 4/3.5 incumbent losses were not surprises, and from the four vacant seats three incumbents would have likely won if they had run. Several incumbents ran poor campaigns, and none of the newbies shined—save Senator-elect Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who received help from an opponent who ran an awful campaign—but, in context, things were not much worse than someone might have expected. “Nothing to see here, move along,” for the Ds? Absolutely not, and without better messaging and policies, 2016 can will be a disaster. “A mandate for the Rs?” Yes, sure, just keep on keeping on, with nothing new or helpful for regular people, and see how well you do in 2016!

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