Thursday September 27, 2012

Network and cable TV, blogs, newspapers, and of course talk radio are all about the presidential horse race this year.

It's obvious, but perhaps too-much taken for granted, that just who is elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives matters very much, also. Congressional Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, made it clear years ago that their goal was to oppose anything President Obama proposed, with the goal of making him a one-term president.

This opposition extended even to things Republicans once stood for, such as spending on infrastructure and hiring government workers during economic downturns. Even the dreaded "Obamacare" relies on the idea of an "individual mandate" to buy insurance, which originated with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The result has been gridlock. Republicans in the Senate even voted down a bipartisan jobs bill for veterans last week, lest good news on the jobs front be a feather in the president's cap, even if it would have been accomplished with Republican support.

If Americans re-elect President Obama -- and the election could still go to Mitt Romney despite his frequent gaffes -- it would be best if he had a Congress he could work with. Given that there are so few Republicans in this Tea Party era willing to compromise, this means a Democratically controlled House and Senate. Right now, odds are the House will remain Republican by a more narrow margin but GOP hopes of taking control of the U.S. Senate are receding.

Here are three races that matter:

* To the south in Massachusetts, incumbent Republican Scott Brown faces a stiff challenge from national consumer policy advocate Elizabeth Warren, who helped President Obama establish the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is all substance and would likely be a very effective senator but at times she comes across as too earnest and preachy. Her opponent, Sen. Brown, pulled an upset the special 2010 election to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy's seat, swept in in part by the Tea Party fervor loosed at the time and boosted by out-of-state money from groups sympathetic to Wall Street.

Representing one of the most liberal states in the U.S., Sen. Brown by necessity positions himself as a moderate. Until recently, his campaign ads boosted his nice-guy-with-an-attractive-family image, complete with pickup truck. However, with Ms. Warren now surging ahead in the polls, Brown has launched a nasty attack on her Native-American heritage.

* In the 8th Congressional District in Illinois, in a northern suburb of Chicago, Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the Iraq War, is challenging one-term Tea Party activist Joe Walsh. Rep. Walsh, who defeated a Democratic incumbent by less than 300 votes in 2010, is known for his incendiary rhetoric, for berating constituents who disagree with him, and for not paying child support. An opponent of any form of compromise, Walsh has said that President Obama was elected "because he pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that."

* In the 18th Congressional District in Florida is perhaps the most divisive and bizarre Tea Party member of Congress of all, Allen West. He, too, was swept into office in 2010. Rep. West has made such enlightening comments as offering that drivers with Obama bumper stickers are "a threat to the gene pool." West also has claimed that "there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party." And he called Social Security "a form of slavery."

Recent polls place Rep. West and Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy in a tight race. Mr. Murphy, 29, is a businessman and political newcomer, liberal on social issues and moderate on fiscal issues. He ran in part because he is appalled by West.

These races matter, if we are to escape gridlock and reduce polarization. Reps. Walsh and West have no business being in Congress. Sen. Brown is not an extremist, but voting with the GOP Senate caucus he enables Republican obstruction. Plus, despite his efforts to appear moderate, he is the candidate of Wall Street, which is appalled at the prospect of a world class consumer advocate such as Ms. Warren in the Senate.