Sometimes changes that affect our politics are subtle and therefore, easily missed. Paul Kane has identified how one of those changes is affecting members of the Senate who are running for re-election.
After nearly 12 years in the Senate, North Carolina Republican Richard Burr holds a dubious distinction: a lot of people in his home state don’t know if he’s any good at his job…
Burr is not alone among potentially vulnerable incumbents with low name recognition in key states that will decide which party controls the Senate in 2017. Of the 25 least known senators, ten are running for re-election — nine of them Republican — as relative unknowns, with roughly 30 percent of their voters unable to form an opinion of them. That list includes Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).
Kane suggests that the reason these incumbents are so unknown among their constituents is that partisans tend to get their news from national ideologically driven outlets while local news has all but disappeared.
Overall, there are more reporters covering Congress than ever, except they increasingly write for inside Washington publications whose readers are lawmakers, lobbyists and Wall Street investors. A Pew Research Center study released earlier this year found that at least 21 states do not have a single dedicated reporter covering Congress.
That is a story John Heltman wrote about here at the Washington Monthly in an article for the Nov/Dec 2015 edition titled: Confessions of a Paywall Journalist.
Kane goes on to talk about the two options Senators have used to overcome this lack of name recognition. First of all – money talks.
“We go six years with no coverage,” Burr said in an interview this week, lamenting the fading interest in his state’s congressional delegation. “So it’s like you weren’t here for six years. Your name ID drops into the 40s.” Run $5 million in ads, he said, “it pops right back up to the 80s.”
Secondly, “iconoclasts stand out.”
After little more than three years in elected office, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has reached near saturation level with Bay State voters, with just 12 percent having no opinion of the liberal firebrand. Meanwhile, Sen. Ed Markey (D) — an institution in Massachusetts politics after 37 years in the House and three in the Senate — does not register with 30 percent of his constituents.
It’s the same dynamic in Texas with the state’s two Republican senators. Ted Cruz — an erstwhile conservative presidential contender — has held elective office not even three-and-a-half years, yet all but 14 percent of his voters have a strong view of him. A third of Texans cannot form a view of John Cornyn, the Republican whip with nearly 14 years in the Senate who is likely to be the next GOP floor leader.
That points to two disturbing trends we’ve all been watching lately in politics – the influence of big money and the rise of show horses over work horses. Jonathan Bernstein picked up on all of this and suggests that it also fuels partisan gridlock.
I don’t know how much the changes in media coverage caused the atrophy of the committee system and Congress’s ability to do its job. But it’s easy to see how rank-and-file members have fewer incentives to be productive, and more incentives to merely vote with their party’s leadership and do little else.
All of this focuses on how the lack of a vibrant local press affects incumbents in the Senate. One can only assume that it poses an even greater challenge for members of the House. Finally, it explains a lot about why we have tended towards an “imperial presidency” and the lack of voter participation in midterm elections. For years we’ve been hearing that famous line from Tip O’Neill who said, “All Politics is local.” That quote might be relegated to a bygone era.