Incumbents from both parties may require their own bailouts

The bailout is back in the news, and congressional challengers from both parties intend to keep it that way.

After a series of difficult votes this session, an oldie-but-goodie from the 110th Congress is looming over 2010: The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). And it’s the quintessential anti-incumbent issue in what’s shaping up to be an anti-incumbent year.

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While Republicans have stood resolutely against most of the big Democratic proposals in the 111th Congress, the bailout looms as an unpopular vote that many in both parties cast at the end of 2008.

The parties have begun trying to turn the issue to their advantage, even though the original $700 billion package passed with broad bipartisan support in both chambers. Republicans will lump it with the other “big government” programs passed by Democrats, while Democrats will start on offense on the issue with radio ads Wednesday.

The Democrats’ ad plays off Republican opposition to the financial regulatory overhaul bill that passed the House on Friday. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) ads hit five incumbents for voting “to let Wall Street continue the same risky practices that crippled retirement accounts and left taxpayers on the hook for $700 billion.”

Republicans, in turn, will try to obfuscate the issue, which they think has been linked more to Democrats. The GOP will increasingly use the term “permanent bailout culture” in the months to come.

“Being on the opposite side of Speaker Pelosi and Barney Frank is never a political liability, which may explain why more than two dozen Democrats joined Republicans in opposing this permanent bailout legislation,” said a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Paul Lindsay.

Whatever the party committees can achieve with the issue, though, they mostly see it as an anti-incumbent thing. Many members of Congress who voted for the bailout are now taking steps to separate themselves from the result. They want to use the returned funds to pay down debt, and some even say that they regret the vote.

They have plenty of reason. A late October poll for Time magazine showed that 55 percent of Americans opposed the bailout, and other polls have shown even more are opposed when the wording of the question is slightly different.

While the issue will be wielded against members of both parties throughout the next 11 months, it could be particularly potent in some race-to-the-right GOP primaries. The Time poll showed 71 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents opposed to the bailout.

One GOP pollster said candidates are polling the issue and are deeply concerned.

“It’s a killer — particularly in a GOP primary,” the pollster said.

Few GOP incumbents who voted for the bailout face substantial primary challengers, but those who do, including Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Reps. Henry Brown Jr. (R-S.C.), Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), should expect a heavy dose of bailout-based criticism.

The issue is more likely to affect Republican incumbents seeking other jobs, including governor and the Senate.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Reps. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) are all running for governor and facing bailout wrath. Hutchison, in the face of such criticism, has said flatly that she regrets her bailout vote.

Tumpy Campbell is the son of a former South Carolina governor who is challenging Brown in a primary. He said Barrett was getting bludgeoned with the issue over summer recess and that it poses big problems for both him and Brown.

“I just think he’s going to have a tough time overcoming that with his gubernatorial bid,” Campbell said of Barrett.

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Reps. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Mike Castle (R-Del.) are all running for Senate after voting for the bailout. Much like the DCCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) hit all three after last week’s vote.

“Roy Blunt voted to bail out the banks, then opposes steps to keep them accountable,” declared DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz.

Of course, plenty of Democrats voted to “bail out the banks” as well, including many in leading races.

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) voted yes, while the man he’s challenging, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), voted no in the Senate. Republicans will also be able to tag the issue on whomever emerges from the primary between Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), as well as Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and, perhaps most notably, Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

Dodd, the Senate Banking Committee chairman, was at the center of controversy early this year over a provision he inserted into the stimulus bill, which allowed for big bonuses for some bailed-out executives.

But even as Republicans target him on the issue, they are bickering among themselves in the primary.

Former WWE CEO Linda McMahon says a bailout was needed but has run ads critical of the circumstances surrounding it, while former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) has tacked 100 percent against the concept of a bailout.

“It was necessary at the time; our economy was going to collapse,” McMahon said in a recent interview with The Hill. “I certainly don’t think it’s been executed the way I understood it would.”
Simmons campaign manager Jim Barnett noted that the bill “incited fiscal conservatives across America, and it is the same bailout that Rob Simmons has clearly and unambiguously opposed.”