“Oh, s***.” That was one House Democratic leadership staffer’s take on the results coming out of Michigan late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. If you missed it, Rep. John Dingell, one of the last World War II vets and “Greatest Generation” members in Congress, pulled off a huge upset victory over fellow House member Lynn Rivers.
While The Prowler never counted Dingell out of Michigan’s newly re-apportioned 15th — remember that next time we call, congressman — most political poll watchers had Dingell down and out. And why not? Rivers led in many polls heading into primary election day, albeit within the margin of error, and Rivers had big-time backing from feminist and lefty groups, such as EMILY’s List. She also had the financial and moral support of many high profile men and women in the House, including — and this is where the aforementioned profanity comes into play — the California representative who would be Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi.
But first the hard numbers. Dingell trounced Rivers 59 percent to 41 percent in a race that many assumed would be far closer, in part because the reformatted 15th appeared to favor Rivers politically. But in the end, it appears that the huge organized labor support for Dingell was just too much. In the waning days of the campaign, auto-worker unions as well as National Rifle Association supporters undertook separate get out the vote programs for Dingell.
Now to the profane political analysis above. That huge sucking sound you might have heard coming from the San Francisco Bay Area was probably emanating from the home of current Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi, who had very publicly backed Rivers in the Michigan race. And this was after a number of her colleagues had recommended that she not get in the middle of it. (This is the same Pelosi who had endorsed Rep. Gary Condit‘s re-election bid before colleagues brought her to her senses.) Pelosi donated money to Rivers’s campaign, signed on as a sponsor in a number of fundraisers, and campaigned for her.
“She had a lot invested in that race,” says one of her staffers in California. “This was one of the campaigns that was going to define her leadership. You know, going her own way, not playing to the Old Boys Club, a new kind of leader for the Democrats in the House. It hasn’t worked out the way it was planned.” That’s an understatement.
“It wasn’t just Pelosi,” says the succinct House leadership staffer. “The leadership avoided getting in too deep on this race, but everyone took a side. A lot of Democrats backed Rivers. A lot of Democrats backed Dingell. But Pelosi definitely gets hurt by this. She won’t know how or when, but she’ll suffer politically for going against Dingell.”
Dingell is certainly one of the most influential Democrats in the House, and has let it be known that there aren’t any hard feelings between him and Pelosi –it’s just politics, after all. But he has also let it be known that politics is all about who wins and who loses. He just won. Pelosi is expected to run for Democratic leader should Dick Gephardt steps down next January. She is expected to be challenged by Texas Rep. Martin Frost. And not so coincidentally, guess who backed Dingell?
“It’s probably still Pelosi’s race to lose, but we said that about Rivers too, didn’t we?” says the House Democratic leadership staffer. “I think Pelosi is making a lot of phone calls to colleagues right now.”
Republicans breathed a sigh of relief, in part because over the years House GOP-ers have found middle ground with Dingell on a number of different issues. “We get along just fine, and we’re pleased he pulled it out,” says a House Republican member, adding with a chuckle: “I think some of us might even have steered a little campaign dough his way just to let him know we were thinking of him.”