The reaction to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s surprise decision to bow out of the Senate Republican leadership was barely perceptible off Capitol Hill, but not on it, where power is usually coveted, not relinquished. Among other things, his impending exit signals how the chamber’s power dynamic is shifting from senators traditionally rooted in the committee system and lawmaking to those steeped in bare-knuckle electoral politics.
The Tennessee Republican not only announced that he will step down as Senate Republican Conference chairman in January but that he will forgo his bid for the Senate GOP’s No. 2 job of whip in the next Congress. Alexander’s exit leaves Sen. John Cornyn of Texas the clear front-runner for the whip post, and so far he is uncontested in the race—a fact all the more remarkable because the GOP is favored to take over the Senate.
A cornerstone of Cornyn’s strength is his chairmanship of the Senate Republicans’ campaign operation, a job he has done ably and for which he gets mostly high marks from his colleagues. If Republicans win a majority in 2012, other aspiring senators will be hard-pressed to mount a bid against the lawmaker credited with the victory. The whip job could reasonably put Cornyn on a track to become his party’s leader when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., no longer wants the job.
Cornyn’s expected ascent is a testament to how power in the chamber is increasingly built on the outside, through candidate recruitment and the power of fundraising. The reasons are varied, but all are based on the ever-increasing partisanship that defines Washington and the Senate. With Senate control in contention for much of the past decade, party leaders have found themselves devoting more time to winning elections and less time to legislating. Arguably, their success at the former has impressed colleagues more than any accomplishments with the latter.
Power in the chamber is increasingly built on the outside, not the inside.
Republicans aren’t alone in this. Across the aisle, the short list of contenders for leader in the post-Harry Reid era includes Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a top party strategist and former chairman of the Democrats’ campaign operation, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is chairing the 2012 cycle and previously chaired the 2002 cycle. Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., fills out the short list, and while he has never run the campaign operation, he plays a top role in raising money for it. There is a high probability that the next generation of Senate leaders in both parties will consist of former campaign chairs.
“In years past, the leader may have been spending all of their time getting legislation done, and now the key priority is the ability to fundraise. It’s a trend that first started in the House and, like all bad things in the House, has started to seep into the Senate culture,” said Jim Manley, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide.
Inside the Senate, ambitious senators who, like McConnell and Reid before them, have built allegiances through perches on the Appropriations Committee and by mastering the legislative process and arcane world of Senate procedure have also seen their power bases weaken. In today’s more ideological Senate, earmarks are waning, leaving lawmakers more likely to look outside the Capitol for assistance in political fundraising than to put a hand out to appropriators or committee chairmen for help. Plus, the Senate’s ability to move a legislative agenda is hamstrung at best, leaving lawmakers to focus on the politics of the job more than deal-making.
Whether the new dynamic is a positive or negative development is debatable, but it certainly is a shift. “I think it’s a positive thing that the power is shifting back to members of the Senate who are leading in different areas,” Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said in an interview. “With earmarks gone, the power of appropriators has changed. They still have an important role, but I think that can change the dynamic in a positive way in that power is not built on being able to hand out money.”
It also means that the Senate’s partisan divide is likely to grow wider, as the power shifts away from legislators and toward the chamber’s partisans—those who run, raise money, and win elections, supported by the incumbents allied with them. DeMint said the shift is likely to create more polarization because, without earmarks and legislative favors to hold the chamber together, the differences between the two parties are going to be more accentuated.
“There’s two different worldviews now, and the bipartisan spending addiction, the glue that held us together … it’s an ideological battle that we have to have. And we have to do it civilly, but somehow we have to communicate with the American people that there are polar-opposite differences now in the parties,” DeMint said.
Polar opposites are unlikely to lead to a better-functioning Senate, as the two parties’ mission increasingly becomes focused on defeating the other at the ballot box, but the trend underscores why campaign chiefs are rising. If aspiring leaders see their main goal as winning elections, then who better to lead them than senators accomplished in the task?
This article appears in the September 24, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.