Obey decision starts chain reaction

Say what?

Dave Obey, 41-year veteran of Congress, Dean of the Wisconsin Delegation, the third-longest serving member of the United States House of Representatives and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee abruptly announced yesterday that he would not seek reelection to the seat he has held since 1969.

So what?

Political analysts of every stripe can often be accused of attempting to make mountains out of political mole hills, but no such claim can be made here. Everyone understands that this is a big deal.

It’s a big deal for many reasons.

The Person. Dave Obey is not only one of the most powerful and influential members of Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team in Washington, he is the embodiment of the predominant Washington insider culture that survives wars, presidential Administrations, political tsunamis, anti-war movements, and one would have assumed: the Tea Party movement.  He is also the heart and soul of the old-school Wisconsin Democratic Party. Old, white and male, his class-warfare rhetoric, his mastery of the earmark-fueled favor trade and his take-no-prisoners demonization of his political enemies had kept him in Congress for more than four decades, helped the national Party keep and then regain the majority in Congress and provided the foundation for Democratic electoral success throughout northern Wisconsin. If Dave Obey can call it quits in the face of an election that would require more time and effort than he has been accustomed to, then any member of the House and Senate, or even the Wisconsin legislature, can call it a day.

The Timing. Folks, no one, and I mean no one saw this coming. As recently as this past weekend the conventional wisdom among Democrats within his district was that Obey was running and would serve at least and likely for one more term. He’d help get his national party through a tough election, use his experience to help reapportion the Wisconsin electoral map, and bow out on top, so the hope was. After all, the election is right around the corner.

But there were signs that perhaps Obey’s heart just wasn’t into the pending battle. Sean Duffy, the Ashland County District Attorney who will almost certainly be the GOP nominee for the 7th District this fall is running an impressive campaign. He’s raising money, building an impressive grassroots infrastructure and is garnering more national attention than any challenger Dave Obey has ever faced.  For the first time in almost 20 years, Obey would have had to work to keep his job. It was not something he was accustomed to do. He bristled at charges that he was avoiding his constituents, but it was clear Obey did not have the stomach to meet with them, face-to-face, in public town hall meetings to discuss the Stimulus or health care reform. Instead, he conducted call-in town halls, or appeared in public when the setting and the audience could be controlled. There is a growing Tea Party movement in Wisconsin, and it is quite strong throughout Obey’s district. It was a new variable in the political equation that this grizzled veteran did not want to deal with.

So, abruptly, Obey made the shocking announcement (in DC, by the way and not back here in Wisconsin, which I think is telling on so many levels) on May 5th. Until this weekend national and local Democrat leaders thought, at worst, that Obey was facing his toughest reelection challenge in decades. Now, on short notice they have to defend an open seat that is very much in play. They have a few weeks to choose their favored replacement. The filing deadline is two months away, the election only six. If Dave Obey can call it quits so late in the year, then any Democratic member of the House and Senate, or even the Wisconsin legislature, can call it a day.

Now what?

The political dominoes will begin to fall. Will sitting members of the Wisconsin legislature throw their hat in the ring? If Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker or any member of the State Assembly does, they will have to abandon their current seat, thus creating a chain reaction of open seats down the ballot. Moreover, if the Democrats settle on a member of the legislature as their standard bearer, they will face many of the obstacles Obey would have, and won’t have the benefit of being reelected 20 times or have the pull and influence of being the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee.  If the Stimulus and the health care bill were the albatross around Obey’s neck in this ‘stop the tax and spend madness’ year, then this will be the burden weighing down any member of the Wisconsin legislature. Moreover, if it is Decker or another State Senator, add 2008’s Healthy Wisconsin single payer health plan into the mix.  Ugly.

So, yesterday Dave Obey helped deliver a political bombshell, and now we wait for the fallout. Political analysts of every stripe agree on one thing: it will be fascinating to watch the dominoes fall.

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective