The ouster impulse



For the latest on America's anti-incumbent mood, we take you to the hills of West Virginia, where a Democratic congressman named Alan Mollohan has now been ejected from the House seat he has owned for 28 years.

This impulse to oust the insiders has all the makings of a trend. Last Saturday, in Utah, three-term Republican Senator Bob Bennett couldn't even get himself re-nominated to run in November; at a state party convention, he was bounced by the tea-partying delegates who decided that his 84 percent lifetime conservative rating wasn't sufficiently conservative. And last night, clear across the country, Mollohan was trounced in a Democratic primary - winning only 44 percent of the vote in a West Virginia district that has long been a virtual family heirloom - thus becoming the first House incumbent to be bounced from the 2010 re-election competition.

Mollohan was beaten despite the fact that he had strategic help from the Washington Democratic apparatus; that he had twice as much money as his upstart opponent (Mike Oliverio, a financial adviser and state senator); and that this House seat had literally been in the Mollohan family (first the father, then the son) since the era when The Beatles were still a band. Actually, all those factors probably helped feed his defeat.

Local issues played a role, of course. Mollohan hails from coal country, and a lot of the locals felt that he had been insufficiently zealous last year in his opposition to the House Democratic cap-and-trade climate bill that targets coal as dirty energy. Mollohan ultimately voted against the bill, but the unimpressed coal companies gave their money to Oliverio. The challenger also got help from anti-abortion Democrats who felt that Mollohan's Yes vote on health care reform was tantamount to a Yes vote on abortion.

But, more importantly, Mollohan had the kind of baggage that can sink an incumbent in an anti-incumbent year.

When the news first broke in 2006 that Mollohan was, shall we say, ethics-challenged, few voters in his district paid much attention. The prevailing political mood favored the Democrats, thanks largely to George W. Bush's incompetence in Iraq and New Orleans, and the basic story line on corruption was that the ruling congressional Republicans were far more culpable. This was fortunate for Mollohan, given the evidence that (among other things) he had reportedly used special-interest loopholes to steer $250 million into five nonprofit organizations which then hired a number of ex-Mollohan aides for big salary jobs.

He had also worked some suspiciously lucrative real estate deals with an ex-aide who ran one of the nonprofits, and he initially had failed to pay real estate taxes. He also reportedly bought a 300-acre farm, in partnership with the head of a defense firm that had collected a $2.1 million contract - thanks to a little codicil that earmark master Mollohan had slipped into a 2005 spending bill. Not surprisingly, federal prosecutors started to scrutinize his finances. At the time, this was all quite embarrassing for the House Democrats, because Mollohan happened to be a member of the House Ethics Committee. (Newspaper editorials demanded that Mollohan quit the committee, but Nancy Pelosi backed him all the way.)

Anyway, Mollohan's voters gave him a pass. They did so again in 2008, another good Democratic year. Yet despite the fact that the Justice Department closed its Mollohan probe this past January without filing any charges (Mollohan himself said that 20 mistakes on his annual financial reports had been "unintentional and immaterial"), the voters this time were in no mood to indulge him any longer. This time, they willingly smelled the the long-lingering whiff of chicanery - goaded, perhaps, by the Oliverio TV ads that painted Mollohan as "one of the most corrupt members of Congress." (Indeed, a nonpartisan group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, lists Mollohan as one of the 15 most corrupt.) 

So, thanks to the prevailing mood shift, the whiff became a stench. Mollohan's pollster probably had it right yesterday when he reportedly remarked, even before the votes were counted, that "2010 is different than 2006 and 2008."

Give the punishments meted out to congressional vets Bennett and Mollohan within a span of four days, incumbents in both parties apparently need to heed that warning. The big question, in advance of next Tuesday's Pennsylvania Democratic primary, is whether Arlen Specter will be next.