Statehouse Leadership Battles Foreshadow Future D.C. Conflicts
Monday afternoon, incoming Washington state Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom took the stage at a press conference in Olympia to announce his plans for the 2013 legislative session. Tom will be one of 26 Democrats in the Evergreen State’s 49-member state Senate. But most of Tom's partners in the chamber's majority coalition are not: Tom and another conservative Democrat, Tim Sheldon, joined forces with 23 Republicans to install themselves as the leaders of a power-sharing Senate majority.
In some ways, the parochial scuffles of state legislatures don't get any more local than this. Tom is a former Republican, while Sheldon represents a very conservative district and endorsed Republican Rob McKenna for governor this year. Tom and Sheldon previously teamed to break with the Democratic Senate majority in 2011 and craft a budget with Republicans, infuriating colleagues and briefly throwing the legislature into chaos.
But the fickle Democrats' move also personifies a broader trend. Leadership battles have raged in state legislatures across the country since the election, often pitting different intra-party ideological and political blocs against each other and highlighting divides that plague the congressional caucuses, too. If the states truly are the laboratories of democracy, they foretell some bitter conflict to come in future Congresses.
"I'm not leaving the Democratic Party," Sheldon said at the Monday press conference in Washington. "I'm working with everyone here." More accurately, two of the most conservative state Senate Democrats teamed up to keep the chamber from being run by Ed Murray, a liberal Democrat from one of the state's most liberal districts.
Some House Democrats in Arkansas helped pull a similar trick in Little Rock after Republicans took control of both state legislative chambers for the first time since Reconstruction. The GOP's state House margin was slimmer than many expected, and conservative state Rep. Terry Rice's leadership bid was voted down by a coalition that elevated Republican Davy Carter instead. The vote took place by secret ballot, but a significant number of Democrats, prompted by their caucus leader, supported Carter because they felt he would be a less confrontational leader.
"He's more involved in economic and mainstream issues," said Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas's Clinton School of Public Service and a former aide to former Democratic Sen. David Pryor. "He hasn't taken major roles in issues related to the social area."
Meanwhile, in Texas, conservative Republicans are trying to undo a similar move the GOP speaker made to take power in 2009. State House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, ousted then-speaker Tom Craddick with the support of about a dozen fellow Republicans plus nearly all of the chamber's 74 Democrats. Craddick's iron-fisted speakership rankled plenty of members, and Democrats hoped they could play a bigger role with Straus. Since then, though, some Democrats feel like they haven't gotten what they voted for, especially after last session's partisan redistricting and budget-slashing efforts, and some conservative Republicans want a more conservative speaker representing their majority.
GOP state Rep. David Simpson announced Tuesday that he will challenge Straus for the speakership, and some Democrats are holding back for the moment, perhaps waiting to extract concessions from Straus before backing him again. Straus claims that he has firm support, including majorities from both parties, but Craddick also claimed to be safe just before Straus unseated him. Congressman-elect Pete Gallego, a West Texas Democrat who supported Straus in 2009, thinks Straus will weather the storm, but not without campaigning a bit. "He's going to have to meet with folks in the middle," Gallego said. "That's where his votes are from, and it's incumbent on him to do that."
We may never see politicians cross party lines in a leadership vote in hyper-partisan Washington. But both party caucuses, especially in the House, contain similar tensions to the ones described above. Retiring Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler's leadership challenge against Nancy Pelosi two years ago is the clearest example. At the moment, murmurs in the House Republican Conference suggest some conservative dissatisfaction with Speaker John Boehner's leadership since he removed several conservative members from plum committee assignments and began negotiations for a fiscal deal with President Obama.
The GOP conference chair race between Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. (the eventual winner) and Tom Price, R-Ga., laid bare other ideological and regional rivalries among House Republicans. Back on the Democratic side, the tensions that came out when Shuler challenged Pelosi are likely to prompt a vigorous debate about ideology and style in the eventual race to appoint her successor, whenever that happens.
This year in New Hampshire, returning Democratic state House Speaker Terie Norelli -- Democrats just won back the House there -- faced a challenge from state Rep. David Campbell, who called for more "moderation" to help Democrats weather New Hampshire's famous swings from election to election. "We’ve got to present ourselves as a party that is capable of leading responsibly as well as restoring some civility to the process," Campbell told the Nashua Telegraph in November, before he lost the leadership vote. And in Wisconsin, a freshman liberal Democrat surprisingly won the minority leader post in the state Senate.
Pure politics also came into play in Idaho, where GOP state House Speaker Lawrence Denney lost his position to Republican Scott Bedke. In the spring, Denney and co-conspirators in the legislature funneled money to PACs that were opposing fellow Republican incumbents in primaries. All six Republicans ended up winning their primaries and Denney's donations were uncovered, paving the way for the full caucus to vault Bedke over him in an early December vote.
As more avenues for political spending spring up, congressional leaders may be tempted to play a role in party primaries -- think of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's $25,000 leadership PAC donation to a group opposing GOP Rep. Donald Manzullo in the Illinois primary. Manzullo lost, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario where such activity occurs and then comes back to bite the leader who did it. This year's state legislative leadership battles -- and there are so many we can't list them all -- are being fought far from the nation's capital. But the issues they have raised look poised to land here, too.