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Sharpening the political focus on the 2010 mid-term elections

The current political season surrounding the 2010 mid-term elections continues to amaze in so many ways.  Mid-term congressional elections are, more often than not, sustenance for the appetites of perpetual political junkies.  This is true even though they often embody major changes in the direction of Congress based on the frustrations of a restless electorate.  The “Gingrich Revolution” of 1994 that saw the Republicans surge to power for a 12-year reign comes to mind as well as does the 2006 takeover by the Democrats in the run up to the Presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Each of these elections has their unique contexts and hence their historic stories to tell.

The 2010 mid-term elections, I predict, will be long remembered around these parts and throughout the nation based on a smorgasbord of issues.  They should be remembered by Mississippians because for the first time since prior to the Civil War Mississippi finds itself in the mainstream of political ideology – at least on the right side of the political spectrum.  Perhaps the larger irony is that this is not a situation where Mississippi, after having spent decades wandering in the political wilderness, has finally been allowed into the company of states nationally, but rather it is a case where the rest of the nation has gravitated more toward the anti-Washington, anti-“big government,” pro-conservative position that the majority of Mississippians have stubbornly clung to all these years.

Nothing could provide better evidence of Mississippi’s unlikely ascendancy to the head of the far right conservative class nationally than the role assumed by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour as a central figure in the political strategizing and campaign fundraising for the mid-term elections and, no doubt ultimately, the 2012 Presidential elections.  Why has Gov. Barbour become so passionate about the 37 gubernatorial elections that are taking place simultaneously with the Congressional elections?  No one on the political scene keeps more political variables in mind at one time than does Gov. Barbour.  First, he is ever mindful of the roles of the Republican governors as the titular heads of the Republican Party in their respective states as the ticket for the 2012 elections begins to take shape.  Secondly, Barbour, no doubt, has in mind the influence of the governors with their states’ Legislatures as they undertake legislative redistricting in 2011.  It is the Legislatures in turn that engage in congressional redistricting – a function that has been given a great deal of credit lately for carving out Republican safe districts, ironically as a result of 20 – 30 years of efforts to enhance minority electability.

On another front, the delicate balance on the Supreme Court is lurking in the dreams – or nightmares – of political gurus in either party.  Currently, the Court sits in a somewhat tenuous standoff with Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas on the right and Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagin on the left and Justice Kennedy in the middle.  Justice Ginsberg has served for some time since her diagnosis with pancreatic cancer.  While the possibility of an immediate opening on the Court has rarely been mentioned in the midst of other political debates surrounding the culture wars, one can wager that this issue is on the mind of many, particularly those trying to stave off a takeover by the Republicans of the United States Senate.  A tip of the ideological scales at this point either toward the right or the left would likely effect the direction of government for the next two decades.

It goes without saying that an additional point of great interest in the 2010 elections has to do with the nature of the political strategies themselves.  The effect of the TEA Party movement is becoming unmistakable.  The jury is still out on the ultimate electability of TEA Party-backed candidates, but the impact has already been felt.  Whether we are talking about the defeats of veteran Republican Sen. Murkowski in Alaska or long-serving Republican Rep. Castle in Delaware, the role of the TEA Party is clearly evident.  While the Republican Party has maintained its position “right of center” the TEA Party has staked out the far right.  At least as far as the internal party primaries are concerned, the TEA Party has made a couple of facts abundantly clear regarding litmus tests.  First, to gain TEA Party support a candidate must have never given any evidence of compromising with Democratic positions.  Secondly, that candidate must be anti-Washington in word and in deed.  To have fudged on either of these points runs the risk of having the word “establishment” placed before a candidate’s name, and such an animal is becoming an endangered species.

Of course, the one major policy issue that looms over the fall campaign is the question of whether to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, and thus return to pre-2001 levels, or to separate the highest income earners from the middle class taxpayers.  Both parties will be trying to lure the other into the most politically disadvantageous trap.  Failure to act at all however will result in the automatic expiration of the tax cuts in Jan. 2011.  This is too late for anyone to be blamed by the elections but it will thus be the first salvo fired in the 2012 national elections.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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