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All politics not local

That’s what a columnist for the online publication Nashville Post called national bloggers who have targeted Nashville-area Rep. Jim Cooper (D) for his opposition to a robust public option in the current healthcare debate. It’s a common charge anytime we have the temerity to engage in a local race, whether for local, state or federal office.

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You see, money and organizing muscle should not flood into a local race, because it’s up to the locals to handle local affairs — like who will represent them in Congress.

Sounds romantic and ideal, and it would be, if the concept hadn’t been perverted beyond recognition. Let’s look at Cooper, for example. Over his career, since 1989, he has raised $8.5 million.

Of that total, $904,000 has come from the health industry sector, according to an analysis by campaign spending watchdog OpenSecrets.org, second only to the $1.05 million he has raised from the finance, insurance and real estate sector.

And believe it or not, some of that money came from outside his district! New York has contributed over $316,000; $250,000 came from Washington, $160,000 from Chicago, $63,000 from San Francisco and $53,000 from Boston. And that doesn’t include political action committee (PAC) dollars — little of the $1.3 million he’s received from PACs has come from inside his district.

When $11 out of every $100 you raise comes from the health industry, and so much more comes from outside the district, sometimes your constituents get forgotten.

A Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos found that his constituents favored a public option by a 61-28 margin, including 80-11 among Democrats and 64-26 among independents. Even 20 percent of Republicans support it, more bipartisanship than you’ll ever see in D.C. Yet Cooper still refuses to back legislation that includes a robust public option. He has publicly opposed H.R. 3200, the House vehicle for healthcare reform, preferring to support doomed legislation that specifically omits the public option. If he truly supports a public option, he has a funny way of showing it.

So how are grassroots forces in Cooper’s district supposed to fight back? Incumbents already harbor extraordinary electoral advantages. The past two years, despite massive Democratic pickups, incumbent reelection rates in the U.S. House were 94 percent. It was 90 percent during the GOP’s massive gains in 1994. The numbers were 98 percent in 1998, 2000 and 2004. With their high name recognition, franking abilities and ample media opportunities, incumbents generally start far ahead of any potential challengers, even before money comes into the picture. And when threatened, the party establishment and K Street will rescue any beleaguered incumbent, banking on that 90-plus-percent reelection rate. Meanwhile, the political media get the vapors at the mere thought that an incumbent shouldn’t have lifetime tenure to his or her seat.

Hence that columnist at the Nashville Post, outraged that anyone would seriously challenge the local political big-shot, while our poll of the district found that among voters, only 36 percent would definitely vote to reelect Cooper, compared to 41 percent who would consider someone else and 23 percent who would definitely vote to replace him. In a state with open primaries, those aren’t great numbers, and it speaks to an electorate looking for options. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, that’s democracy.

Assuming a top-tier challenger rises to take on Cooper, national corporatist money would flood to the incumbent. And national grassroots dollars flowing to help a local grassroots candidate would be no less unseemly, helping provide some measure of accountability in a district that hasn’t had a real choice for far too long.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).