Election 2004  
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Five on the Floor

Meet the new Republican senators. Five of them hope to make your worst nightmares come true.
 
 
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When the new Senate storms Capitol Hill early next year, the narrow Republican majority of the past two years will disappear, to be replaced by a much wider Republican majority. Currently, the Senate comprises 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and an independent – Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, a former Republican who usually votes with the Democrats. Because of last week's election, the Senate will soon seat 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and Jeffords.

Who are these people? Unlike the House, where Republican members lead lives of near-anonymous fealty dictated by Speaker Dennis Hastert and majority leader Tom DeLay, senators matter as individuals – not as just a voting bloc. There are moderate Republican senators, such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, of Maine; Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island; and Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania – who nearly got his head handed to him last week for daring to suggest that anti-choice judges might not pass muster. There are religious conservatives, such as Sam Brownback, of Kansas, and Orrin Hatch, of Utah. And there is Jim Bunning, of Kentucky, who's in a class by himself: last week he was re-elected despite widespread reports that he has Alzheimer's disease, and even though two of his supporters had sneeringly suggested that his Democratic opponent was gay.

Seven new Republican senators were elected last week. Two are unremarkable. Mel Martinez, of Florida, was George W. Bush's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Despite a poor record on the environment, Martinez deserves some thanks from Democrats: he and the White House intimidated Congresswoman Katherine Harris (yes, that Katherine Harris) into not running for the Senate this year. In Georgia, Republican congressman Johnny Isakson will succeed Democratic senator Zell Miller, who's retiring. Isakson – a moderate who's pro-choice (except when he isn't) – may well be more a voice of reason than Miller has been. That said, Isakson's outburst earlier this year that Bush is "the best president the United States has ever had" was certainly embarrassing, if not nearly as embarrassing as Miller's red-faced rant at the Republican National Convention.

What remain are five genuine specimens of right-wing Republicanism. Keep an eye on these guys. They're dangerous.

1) Tom Coburn: Keeping us safe from condoms and the 'gay agenda'

Fresh from helping to save Oklahoma from the scourge of teenage lesbianism, Tom Coburn arrives in Washington with perhaps the most bizarre set of right-wing credentials of anyone in the Republican Class of 2004. A former three-term congressman who was swept into office 10 years ago on the coattails of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, Coburn – who succeeds retiring Republican senator Don Nickles – is an obstetrician possessed of an obsessive fascination with other people's sexuality.

In 2003, George W. Bush named Coburn to co-chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. Coburn's very first act was to speak out against the one preventative behavior (other than abstinence) that actually works. "I will challenge the national focus on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV," he said upon his appointment. Earlier, as a congressman, he had sought to force condom manufacturers to label their products as "ineffective" in slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

But that doesn't begin to plumb the depths of Coburn's so-called thinking. In his successful Senate campaign against Democratic congressman Brad Carson, Coburn called for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. That certainly gives new meaning to the term "pro-life." As a physician, Coburn himself performed abortions, although he says it was always to save the life of the woman. Tell it to the judge, Doc. Nor is that the only dissonant note from his career in medicine: Coburn was once accused of having sterilized a young woman without her permission. He says she had asked him to perform the surgery, though he conceded that he had lacked the written authorization that the law required.

In the 1990s Coburn criticized NBC for broadcasting Schindler's List, the Oscar-winning film about the Holocaust, charging that it would encourage "irresponsible sexual behavior." That particular outburst was so odd that even one of his ostensible allies, self-appointed morals czar Bill Bennett, felt compelled to label Coburn's remarks as "unfortunate and foolish." Coburn is also an outspoken opponent of the "gay agenda" in general and same-sex marriage in particular; as a member of Congress, he refused to allow the city of Washington to fund its program for domestic-partnership benefits.

Earlier this year, Coburn said that lesbianism is "so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl [at a time] go to the bathroom." Coburn's source: a campaign worker. He later said his remarks had been taken "out of context," whatever that was supposed to mean. His spokesman gamely insisted that Coburn was worried that "our kids are getting mixed messages about sexuality." Mixed-up, rather, if they've been listening to Coburn.

Sources: Salon, September 13, 2004; AlterNet, March 28 and October 13, 2004; the Associated Press, October 12, 2004.

2) Jim DeMint: 'The Family' values, homophobia, and tax chicanery

If Tom Coburn is #1 on our list of exotic senatorial specimens, South Carolina's Jim DeMint might qualify as #1A rather than #2. Congressman DeMint, who defeated Democrat Inez Tenenbaum in the campaign to succeed another retiring senator, Democrat Ernest Hollings, belongs to a secretive religious organization with anti-Semitic leanings, and is a tax-cut hypocrite and an outspoken homophobe to boot.

The decades-old religious group, best known for sponsoring the annual National Prayer Breakfast, is generally known as "The Family," "The Foundation," or "The Fellowship." A magnet for high-ranking conservative Washingtonians, it is said to have supported some vicious Third World right-wing dictatorships over the years – as well as performing the occasional good deed, such as helping to foster the relationship between Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat. Members also reportedly believe that God's covenant with the Jews is broken, and that they are "the new chosen." DeMint is close enough to the inner circle to have lived, along with five other congressmen, in a million-dollar Capitol Hill apartment subsidized by "The Family."

During his campaign against Tenenbaum, though, DeMint's membership in this little-known group was far less of an issue than his mouth was. At a debate in October, DeMint said, "If a person wants to be publicly gay, they should not be teaching in the public schools." Even a local Christian Coalition official and DeMint supporter named Bette Cox said, "I wouldn't have said that. It's a civil rights issue with me. You can't cut off someone's civil rights." DeMint refused to apologize – although he did apologize for saying that unwed, pregnant women should not be allowed to teach either. And he declined to fire an aide who'd sent out an e-mail referring to "fags" and "dykes" (or, to be more precise, "dikes").

One of DeMint's key issues during the campaign was getting rid of the federal income tax and replacing it with a 23 percent flat national sales tax. It's an idea that President Bush himself has been cozying up to in recent weeks. The simplicity of such a system is undeniably appealing, but, unless carefully designed, it would be the mother of all regressive taxes, biting deeply into the poor and the middle class for everything they buy. So it's pretty amusing to learn that DeMint is a serial tax scofflaw, repeatedly making late payments on his federal, state, and local taxes between 1987 and 2001.

If nothing else, a flat federal sales tax would prevent well-connected people from gaming the system. People such as Jim DeMint.

Sources: Harper’s magazine, March 2003; the Associated Press, April 20, 2003; the Columbia State, October 4, 2004; 365Gay.com; Salon, October 7, 2004.

3) David Vitter: Putting young men and women in harm's way

The election of Louisiana congressman David Vitter to the Senate is an ominous sign of the problems facing the Democratic Party, especially in the South. Vitter won more than 50 percent in a multi-candidate election last Tuesday, thus avoiding a runoff next month. The retiring incumbent, John Breaux, is a Democrat who's conservative enough to inspire teeth-gnashing among liberals. But unlike Zell Miller, who these days sounds more Republican than Dick Cheney does, Breaux is a Democratic loyalist capable of pulling off the occasional bipartisan compromise. Vitter, though, is a straight-down-the-line ultraconservative.

According to rankings published by the National Journal, a nonpartisan political magazine, Vitter is the most conservative congressman elected to the Senate this year – more conservative than 87 percent of his peers. He has a 100 percent ranking from the National Right to Life Committee; a zero percent ranking from Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay and lesbian civil rights organization; a zero percent ranking from the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club; and an "A" from the National Rifle Association.

Vitter's opposition to reproductive choice is so unwavering that he has co-sponsored legislation to require doctors who prescribe RU-486 – a drug that, if used properly, can induce a safe, nonsurgical abortion – to have both the ability and the necessary equipment to perform a surgical abortion should one become necessary. As James Ridgeway observed in the Village Voice, "That's a little like asking a doctor who prescribes heart medicine to be able to do open-heart surgery, right there in the clinic."

Vitter was also responsible for inserting a provision into the No Child Left Behind Act that requires public high schools to supply the names and phone numbers of all juniors and seniors to military recruiters – an invasion of privacy that could have tragic consequences for impressionable, economically stressed young men and women. (To be fair, generous opt-out provisions are included.) When asked to explain his reasoning, Vitter said the previous nondisclosure policy "demonstrated an anti-military attitude that I thought was offensive."

Somehow, no right-wing success story is complete without an example of grotesque hypocrisy. So let the record show that, for several years now, Vitter's supporters have been denying the claims of a Louisiana prostitute that she'd had an 11-month affair with Vitter when he was a state legislator. For the record, we don't care whether the story is true or not. But you'd think the Christian Coalition, which gives him a 100 percent rating, and the Family Research Council, which grades him at 92 percent, would care quite a bit.

Sources: AlterNet, September 29, 2003; the Village Voice, March 27, 2001; Louisiana Weekly, December 29, 2003; National Journal, February 27, 2004. Interest-group rankings from Project Vote Smart.

4) Richard Burr: Corporate errand boy scoops up PAC money

North Carolina has come a long way since the days of Jesse Helms. Its Research Triangle is as sophisticated and well-educated as – well, as in any blue state. So it's only appropriate that John Edwards's successor in the Senate stand out as being somewhat different from his fellow Republican freshmen. To be sure, Congressman Richard Burr is as anti-choice, anti-gay, and pro-gun as the rest of them. But he comes from that strain of Republicanism more interested in sucking up to corporate interests than in joining hands with the godly.

How in the tank is Burr? With $2.4 million in donations, this distant relative of Aaron Burr received more money from political action committees than did any other Senate candidate this year. "The main people he looks out for and answers to are the large corporations. That is the most troubling thing about Richard Burr to me," says Berni Gaither, a North Carolina Democratic Party official. Democratic activist Hayes McNeil puts it more succinctly: "Burr's record in Congress looks like a whore's bed sheet."

The good life, Burr-style, can be awfully good indeed. In April 2002, the National Association of Broadcasters – the fine folks who brought you corporate media consolidation – flew Burr, first-class, to Las Vegas for its annual convention. The amenities included poolside drinks and a massage, although Burr reportedly reimbursed the association for his spa stay. "It's extremely valuable for members to get that overall snapshot of their particular industry," said Burr, who at the time was vice-chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "If not, we rely on everyone to come up here and tell us how things have changed."

North Carolina remains a place apart. Burr and his unsuccessful Democratic opponent, Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, were falling over each other to take credit for a federal buyout of the state's struggling tobacco farmers. But there is an area where Burr stands out: his contempt for the environment. The League of Conservation Voters has named Burr one of its "Dirty Dozen" (along with fellow freshmen senators-elect John Thune and Mel Martinez). The particulars: he supported President Bush on an energy bill provision protecting manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from lawsuits over groundwater contamination; he voted six times against a ban on drilling for oil off North Carolina's Outer Banks; and he has opposed efforts to reduce mercury contamination and greenhouse-gas emissions.

"He has one of the worst environmental records on clean air and clean water in the U.S. Congress," says Mark Longabaugh, the league's political director. "That's one. Two, throughout his entire career he has shown a bias toward special interests, oil and gas or other polluters."

Sources: the Raleigh News & Observer, October 27, 2004; the Durham Independent Weekly, July 7, 2004; the Washington Post, March 11, 2003; Grist magazine, October 26, 2004; National Review Online, September 22, 2004.

5) John Thune: A simple-minded campaign of flag-waving and heterosexuality

Of all the freshmen Republican senators-elect, there is one celebrity – John Thune, of South Dakota, who knocked off Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. But though Thune, a former congressman, is an ultraconservative with ties to the religious right, he doesn't stand out for any particular policy outrage. Rather, Thune is a master of the sort of political cheap shot that excites the imaginations of those who like their symbolism both simple and stupid.

Take, for instance, a debate between Thune and Daschle on NBC's Meet the Press. Thune was agitated over something Daschle had said in March 2003, just before the war in Iraq began – that is, that "this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." Never mind that a) Daschle was speaking the truth, b) he had voted in favor of the war resolution and later backed the $87 billion in reconstruction money for Iraq and Afghanistan, and c) he was a veteran and Thune was not. Thune took the opportunity to accuse Daschle of something close to treason, saying, "What it does is emboldens our enemies and undermines the morale of our troops."

Or take a proposed constitutional amendment against flag-burning – a cause that you might have thought had gone out of style with George H.W. Bush way back in the 1980s. Not, apparently, in South Dakota. "Unfortunately, Senator Daschle has consistently voted against this amendment. My record on this is very clear," Thune said at an event in Rapid City featuring some three dozen veterans, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Don't you wish you'd been there?

Or, finally, take a radio ad that the Thune campaign broadcast this past summer that attempted to lump together Washington, Massachusetts, gay marriage, and Daschle in one unsavory stew. "The institution of marriage is under fire from extremist groups in Washington, politicians, even judges who have made it clear that they are willing to run over any state law defining marriage," Thune intoned. "They have done it in Massachusetts, and they can do it here."

This is just ugly, nasty stuff. The intellectual dishonesty of it all is matched only by its sheer brazenness. By appealing to voters' fears and by demonizing anyone who would get in his way, Thune, unfortunately, demonstrated that he is well-qualified to join the Republican majority.

Sources: the Washington Post, September 20, 2004; the Rapid City Journal, South Dakota, September 22, 2004; Salon, September 30, 2004; the Advocate, July 16, 2004.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.