The Ever-Shrinking Democratic Field for '08

Sen. Birch Bayh button

Sen. Birch Bayh, Evan's father, considered a run for president in 1972 but decided against it. He ran again four years later but never came close to winning the nomination. hide caption

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Karl Mundt

The South Dakota Republican suffered a stroke in 1969 and never returned to the Senate in the remaining three years of his term. hide caption

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Bill Richardson

Ten years ago today, President Clinton pulled Bill Richardson out of Congress to offer him the job of U.N. ambassador. hide caption

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Two years is a lifetime in politics, and so we're not about to venture a guess about what is going to happen in the presidential election of 2008. But we suspect that if the war in Iraq is still going on, and the death toll shows no sign of abating, then it won't be a favorable environment for the Republican Party or its presidential candidate.

Conversely, if you are a Democrat, it may be a very good time to run for president. And yet, one by one, we are witnessing a continuing dropout rate of would-be contenders for the Democratic nomination. First it was former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, followed by antiwar Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Over the weekend, one more name was added to the list: Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.

Bayh's decision was most surprising, given the fact that he had just announced an exploratory committee two weeks prior. He had stockpiled and continued to raise a lot of money (more than $10 million in the bank). And he had made numerous visits to the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. What happened?

On paper, this should be a wide-open race for the nomination. But there is suddenly the realization that if your first name is not Hillary or Barack, it will be very difficult to get noticed. And that may be behind Bayh's decision to not run.

The star power of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has never been in question. Instead, the great unknown was who would be the alternative? For a while the favorite (or at least the media favorite) was Virginia's Warner, whose brains, ambition and wallet put him on the top of the list. His similarly surprising announcement in October that he would be an '08 no-show seemed to open the door for a lot of other Hillary alternatives: In addition to Bayh, there was outgoing Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Sens. Joe Biden (DE), Chris Dodd (CT) and John Kerry (MA), Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, former Sen. John Edwards (NC) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Also in the race were Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

Then, some 10 days after Warner said no, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said on NBC's Meet the Press that he was leaving the door open for a possible run. And suddenly what appeared to be a Democratic free-for-all became, in the eyes of many, a two-way race between Clinton and Obama… one that left very little room for the "others." And Bayh was clearly one of the "others."

Truth be told, I'm not convinced that Bayh, or even Warner, had a real shot at the nomination. To win in nominally red states like Indiana or Virginia, you have to pretty much govern or vote from the center. Yes, that made Bayh and Warner popular in their home states. For his part, Bayh served as secretary of state, two terms as governor, and eight years in the Senate from a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. But if Iraq will be the big issue for 2008, and if Kucinich is right and the electorate is as angry at Democrats who vote to fund the war as they are at Republicans who support the war, then I'm not sure the nominee will be a centrist in the mold of Bayh or Warner.

Further, as we said in the Dec. 7 column, the combination of a Clinton candidacy and an Obama challenge could suck all the oxygen out of the room, leaving little opportunity for anyone else. I suspect that other potential Democratic candidates may come to the same realization, including Kerry, Biden and Clark, if not others.

One thought: What happens to these folks if Obama ultimately decides not to run?

It will also be interesting to see the reception that Edwards gets when he announces his candidacy on Dec. 28 in New Orleans. He has worked hard to build up his candidacy since the 2004 election, when he was the party nominee for vice president. The New Orleans backdrop makes sense; the populist Edwards can effectively make the case that the federal government failed the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But announcing three days before the end of the year, when few are following the news?

The other topic that consumed Washington for much of the past week was the health of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD). Late Wednesday afternoon (just hours after the 12/13 edition of this column went up), Johnson was rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery to stop bleeding in his brain; he remains in critical condition, though some reports indicate that he is improving.

Needless to say, the situation created an unbelievable stir in Washington, mostly among Democrats, who feared that their newly won Senate majority was imperiled. Heading into 2007, the Senate was going to consist of 51 Democrats (including Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who will caucus with the Dems) and 49 Republicans. If for some reason Johnson had to give up his seat, Mike Rounds, the Republican governor of South Dakota, would name his replacement, and all indications suggested the replacement would be a Republican. And the thought of that made Democrats apoplectic.

The Beltway chatter this past week was filled with speculation and theories about different scenarios involving Johnson's Senate seat. There's not much new to report here. But it reminds me of a question that came to this column years ago about whether there was ever a member of Congress who had been removed from office because of health-related reasons. This was my response:

"The only way the Senate can remove a member is by a vote to expel, and there has never been any desire to do that for a health-related cause. Sen. Karl Mundt (R-SD) suffered a debilitating stroke in 1969 but refused to resign and stayed in office until his term expired in January 1973 — although he never showed up for work following his infirmity. Republicans pressured Mundt to step down shortly before the 1970 elections, when it appeared the GOP was going to lose the governorship, and with it, their ability to appoint a Senate successor. There was never talk of a motion to expel, though the Republican Conference eventually did strip him of his committee assignments. In November of that year, a Democrat was elected governor, so the Republicans who were urging Mundt's resignation turned to hoping he would serve until his term expired."

"There were other, similar situations. Rep. John Grotberg (R-IL) lapsed into a coma in January 1986 after participation in an experimental program for his colon cancer caused him to have a heart seizure. His family and staff refused to consider resignation, and the House took no action. He even won re-nomination to the House in the March GOP primary that year, but his family finally relented and announced he would not run again. He remained a member of the House until his death in November 1986."

"In the spring of 1964, Sen. Clair Engle (D-CA) was dying of brain cancer, but refused Democratic entreaties to resign. In June, when the Senate voted to break the filibuster that had stymied the civil rights bill, the dying Engle was wheeled onto the Senate floor to vote for cloture by motioning with his hand. He died a month later."

"In the spring of 1943, Sen. Carter Glass (D-VA) was 85 years old, in poor health and simply stopped coming to work. He died in May of 1946, still a senator but no longer a visitor to Capitol Hill. And according to Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-WV) invaluable book of Senate historical statistics, Sen. James Grimes (R-IA) suffered a stroke in 1869 and remained in office as an invalid until his death in February of 1872. But there was no move in the Senate to declare any of the aforementioned seats vacant."

"The only instance I can think of where lawmakers took action involved Gladys Spellman of Maryland. The Democratic House member suffered a massive heart attack in October of 1980 while campaigning; it left her in a semi-conscious, coma-like state from which she never emerged. She won re-election with ease, but once it was determined that there was no prospect for recovery, the House voted to declare the seat vacant in February 1981."

That history lesson answers most of the Tim Johnson-related questions that arrived in my inbox over the past week. The prospect of a potential Senate vacancy also led to a torrent of questions such as these:

Q: I am hoping you can resolve a dinner table argument. Following a Senate vacancy, has a governor ever appointed someone not of his own party? For example, has a Republican governor ever appointed a Democrat to replace a Democratic senator? — David Kramer, Rochester, N.Y.; similarly, Connie Templeton, Seattle, Wash.

Q: Any chance that if South Dakota's governor needs to replace Johnson, he would break precedent by appointing a Democrat? Or that if he doesn't, there might be a statewide or national revolt? — Jim Terr, Santa Fe, N.M.

A: On March 9, 1960, Oregon Sen. Richard Neuberger (D) died in office. The governor at the time, Republican Mark Hatfield, named Hall Lusk, a widely respected state Supreme Court justice — and a Democrat — to fill the seat until the November elections. Lusk, 76 years old, was a caretaker appointment and had no plans to seek the seat. But that appointment was the last time a governor of one party named a Senate successor from another party.

While discussing a potential successor to Johnson seems premature, if not ghoulish, there are those who urge some kind of law that would keep a "mere" governor from changing the balance of power in the Senate. The shoe was on the other foot following the 2000 elections, when the Senate found itself in a 50-50 partisan deadlock. Until Vermont's Jim Jeffords bolted from the GOP in May 2001, Republicans controlled the Senate, thanks to Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking power. Everyone felt, however, that the GOP's hold was extremely fragile, that it was resting on the health of 98-year-old Strom Thurmond. Republicans in South Carolina, worried about that very thing, tried to push a bill through the state legislature mandating that any Senate vacancy be filled by someone from the same party of the departed senator. (Hmm, do you think this came up because the governor at the time, Jim Hodges, was a Democrat?) The bill didn't go far, but it illustrated how crucial a Senate vacancy would be in an evenly divided Senate. Thurmond, as it turned out, survived his term and retired in 2003; he died six months later.

And, lest we forget, Sen. Craig Thomas, a Republican of Wyoming, has been diagnosed with leukemia. The governor of Wyoming is Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat. Theoretically, he too could decide which party is in the majority in the Senate.

Q: What's the date the new Congress starts? Will the new speaker of the House be inducted that day? I'd love to attend if it's possible. — Jason Hesch, Miami, Fla.

The 110th Congress returns on Thursday, Jan. 4, and if you have a chance to be there, you should do it. The election of a new speaker is always an exciting moment, especially when it means a change of parties. Presumably, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) will hand over the gavel to Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). The last time the House switched parties was during the 1994 elections. But the outgoing speaker at the time, Tom Foley (D-WA), was defeated for re-election that year, so he wasn't around when Newt Gingrich (R-GA) became speaker the following January. The last time an outgoing speaker handed off to the incoming speaker was 1955, when Joe Martin (R-MA) passed the baton to Sam Rayburn (D-TX).

Oops. Thomas Rheinstein of Rochester, N.Y., notes that I gave an incorrect breakdown of the new House during a recent Talk of the Nation appearance. The correct numbers: 233 Democrats, 202 Republicans (including a GOP hold in FL 13, which the Democrats are still challenging). And Ken Black of San Antonio, Texas, caught me saying that Ciro Rodriguez (D), who is coming back to Congress as the new representative from Texas 23, was first elected in 1996. Ken points out that Rodriguez actually first won his seat in a special 1997 election, following the death of Rep. Frank Tejeda (D).

IF IT'S WEDNESDAY, IT'S "POLITICAL JUNKIE" ON THE AIR: Remember, not only can you read "Political Junkie" each week, but you can hear it, too. Tune in to NPR's Talk of the Nation, a call-in program, every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. Eastern, for 20 minutes on politics. Check local listings to see if your local NPR station carries TOTN. If not, you can always hear the program on the Web at npr.org. This week's show: Bye Bye Bayh; another hint from Newt; and where does the right go for '08? The special guest is David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Trump This: Tara Conner, Miss USA, may or may not have indulged in underage drinking or cocaine use, but one thing no one can accuse her of is listening to our weekly political podcast, "It's All Politics," hosted by NPR's Ron Elving and me (you can download it from our Web site). Don't wind up like Tara Conner! New edition of the podcast goes up every Thursday afternoon.

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Political History: President Clinton nominates Rep. Bill Richardson (D-NM) as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (Dec. 20, 1996).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

"Political Junkie" returns in January. Happy Holidays to all! — Ken Rudin

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