Super Tuesday. The day we've all been waiting for. A month's worth of breathless punditocracy analysis all culminating in a night of breathless punditocracy analysis that will actually be about more than 30 or 40 delegates. Indeed, before the night is over, we're likely to have a much better idea of which two candidates will face each other for the presidency in the fall.
But there's one group that's been waiting this day with a little more anticipation than most: Republican Congress critters. Ever since they lost their majority in the 2006 elections, Republicans in Congress have faced a true Hobbesian dilemma. Stick with their president and his mind-blowing record of failure and risk being skinned alive in 2008, or begin to act like rational human beings and face the near-certainty of being savaged by their own party. But now in about half the states, that bad dream is almost over, so the question becomes, if the truth has not set them free, will the primaries?
After 2006, many of us assumed we would start to see some breaks in the near-unanimous party discipline that had prevailed among the GOP in the first six years of President Bush's term. But now Bush's numbers were in the toilet and had been for some time, and the election showed that was no illusion. The country had stopped listening to him and found the experience a pleasant one. They weren't coming back. And the main Congressional enforcer of that discipline -- The Hammer, Tom Delay -- was gone, under indictment, grinning all the way to a seat in front of a Texas jury.
Things looked bleak if they kept this up. And indeed, some 28 of them -- nearly 15% of their number -- simply decided to cash in their chips. Their families suddenly became much more important to them, and they decided not to run again. But while most of us are happy to accumulate a few frequent flyer miles, Congressmen get free plane rides, no humiliating Homeland Security screening necessary, and some decent college will take their kids, no matter how delinquent. It's a tough job to walk away from.
But 2007 came, and nothing seemed to change. On the war in Iraq, health insurance for children, more tax breaks for millionaires, wiretapping, torture, they stood with their president. No position was too un-American for them. Are these people intent on committing suicide? What gives?
What gives are the pathological billionaires who fund groups like Freedom's Watch, the White House front group led mostly by former Bush-Cheney officials, including former official liar and CIA agent outer Ari Fleischer. Its chief funder is the third richest man in America, casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, jet plane provider to the Rudy Giuliani campaign.
Freedom's Watch was founded last year to shore up support for the Bush foreign policy (if "policy" it can be called) and has reportedly amassed $250 million to that end. But while it made a fairly significant $15 million ad buy last summer, and a smaller one around the holidays, for the most part the troops have remained unloved. But that bank account, and those of other "independent" conservative groups, have hung like the Sword of Damocles over any Republican Congressman who might dare to leave the Rez.
Take the case of Wayne Gilchrest, a moderate Republican who has served nine terms representing Maryland's First District, which encompasses the Eastern Shore and curves around the top of Chesapeake Bay to reach into the northern suburbs of Baltimore. It's Republican-leaning, though not greatly so, and it's nearly a third African-American, but in recent years, Gilchrest has won in a walk.
But as the "moderate" modifier would suggest, the GOP base has many problems with him. A Marine platoon leader and Purple Heart recipient in Vietnam, he is now portrayed within his party as a traitor and a coward. (Sound familiar?) His sins are many. He's pro-choice, supports a repeal of don't ask-don't tell (what would an ex-Marine know?), voted for McCain-Feingold, and even sponsored legislation to (gasp!) grant full voting rights to residents of the District of Columbia. He actually believes in global warming and has been a strong protector of the environment generally, which might seem a no-brainer to one whose district includes national treasures like the Assateague Island seashore and the fragile bay, but which makes him a tree-hugger to most Republicans. Why, he probably even opposes drilling for oil off Ocean City.
But what really put him in the cross-hairs of the right were his two votes last spring to impose timelines for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The only other Republican to do so twice -- "Freedom Fries" Walter Jones of North Carolina -- has also drawn a pro-war primary opponent, and while Gilchrest has faced primary challenges before, this one is by far the most serious.
His main opponent is Andy Harris, a state senator and physician who, judging from his website and campaign finance reports, has the three most important qualifications for a Republican candidate -- a photogenic family, some wealthy friends (his donor list seems to consist mostly of old buddies from med school), and the brains of a termite. He supports legislating our sexuality, gun rights (also a matter of legislating our sexuality, come to think of it), and on the economic front, any regulation-slashing, government-cutting proposal that will allow the looting to continue.
But the most important issue, judging from the length and hysterical tone of his website entry, is illegal immigration, which makes sense in a district where the census bureau says the Hispanic population is about half the national average. And the war? Funny. You won't even find the word "Iraq" on his website. But be assured he will support the troops and wants to fight them over there so we don't have to over here.
The Harris campaign is being spearheaded by the notorious Club for Growth, keeper of the "RINO Watch" list and saboteur of the careers of erstwhile Republican independent thinkers Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan. The Club was founded by Stephen Moore, a supply-side true believer whose most recent tome is Bullish On Bush: How George Bush's Ownership Society Will Make America Stronger (I wonder how that's selling). The Club has reportedly dumped a quarter-million dollars into the effort to unseat Gilchrest. Overall, Harris has outraised Gilchrest 2-1.
The Maryland primary is Feb. 12, and the latest polls show Harris with a lead, but not an overwhelming one. Gilchrest's best hope may reside in the late entry of E.J. Pipkin, another state senator and millionaire self-funder who has some environmental credentials of his own, but otherwise is running a far-right campaign. The hope is Pipkin and Harris will split the rabid dog vote, allowing Gilchrest to slip through. Then again, Gilchrest may have received the kiss of death a couple weeks ago, when he received the endorsement of President Bush.
Democrats, meanwhile, see themselves in a no-lose situation. Either they'll have a Republican they can have a conversation with without resorting to grunts and hand signals, or a Harris victory will put a previously safe GOP district into play, a possible pickup. You have to love the smell of burning Republicans in the morning. It smells like victory.
But a good many Republicans will be safe from a fate like Gilchrest's after today, and Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid should put their feet to the fire -- no more excuses. Do they want to stand on their convictions, or do they want to save their skins? Are there any Republicans you can talk sense to anymore? Most Americans now agree George Bush is a moron. Is "sensible Republican" an oxymoron?