Healthcare reform vote: Which Democrats are most vulnerable?

Some Democrats in the House of Representatives worry that a 'yes' vote on healthcare reform could cost them reelection. But history suggests the dynamic isn't that simple.

Rob Chaddock/Newscom
Tom Perriello, pictured here in a July 4, 2008, file photo, was one of the biggest upset winners of the election that followed that November. He's now one of the more vulnerable Democrats in the 2010 elections, and the healthcare reform vote could complicate his reelection campaign.

Remember Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky?

Anyone over a certain age who follows politics does. She was the first-term Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania who cast the decisive 218th House vote for President Clinton’s budget reconciliation bill in 1993 – and then went on to lose reelection in 1994.

Today, as the Democrats work to lock down just enough votes to pass an unpopular healthcare reform bill, “MMM” isn’t far from thought. No one wants to be the MMM of 2010. But there are several who could suffer that fate.

One obvious place to look is the 49 Democrats elected in 2008 from districts that voted for Republican John McCain for president. Most of them, in fact, are fine; either they don’t face tough opponents in the fall or they are otherwise secure in their seats.

Ultimately, “we’re talking about a relative handful of members whose careers could be ended by the healthcare vote,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

What's happened in the past

But even a “no” vote on healthcare by a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district isn't a guarantee of reelection. Maybe he or she is likely to lose anyway, in a midterm cycle that typically punishes the president’s party.

In 1994, six incumbent Democrats lost their seats anyway after voting "no" on the deficit reduction bill, recalls Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline political website, who worked for MMM at the time. And there were six incumbent Democrats from swing districts who voted “yes” on deficit reduction and survived.

In fact, most Democrats survived reelection. But “those who lost office in ’94 were disproportionately those who had supported Clinton on some tough votes and represented Republican-leaning districts,” says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Virginia alone has three Democratic House members currently in tough reelection fights – Tom Perriello (one of the biggest upset winners of 2008), Glenn Nye (another freshman upset winner), and Rick Boucher (a 14-term member who represents a very conservative part of the state).

Any of them could think, “Well, I’m going to lose anyway, so why not take one for the team, and vote for healthcare reform?”

But it’s not so simple. No individual is guaranteed to lose, no matter how tough the odds. For example, in Congressman Perriello's race, there could be a “tea party” candidate or two in the mix, splitting the opposition and allowing Perriello to win reelection with 45 percent of the vote.

Charges of flip-flopping may accompany a changed vote

Another potential problem is the flip-flop charge: Some say that if a member voted “no” on health reform the first time around, it’s safer to stick with “no.”

“Is it better to take a hit and vote the same way, or take a different kind of hit by having to explain why you flip-flopped?” asks Mr. Sabato. “You’re better going with your instincts, whatever they are.”

Aside from wanting sweeping reform of the healthcare system, Democrats are eager for a major legislative victory to run on in November. But for Democrats from conservative-leaning districts, the best option may be to run on the Republican argument: “I could not support this expensive, big-government program.”

In that case, a Republican challenger won’t be able to use healthcare to beat up the Democratic incumbent as effectively as if the member had voted “yes.”

But there’s no guarantee that this Democrat would gain support by voting “no,” says Mr. Jacobson.

On Wednesday, one of the big news flashes of the day came from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, who switched his “no” vote on healthcare to “yes.” But Congressman Kucinich can afford to flip-flop. He occupies a safe Democratic seat. And his reason for changing his vote was atypical: He had opposed the Democratic reform plan because he prefers the more liberal government-run “single payer” healthcare system.

Most of the Democrats voting “no” on healthcare are in conservative-leaning districts.

And on a lighter note, former Congresswoman Margolies-Mezvinsky remains in the news for an entirely different reason: Her son Marc Mezvinsky is set to marry former first daughter Chelsea Clinton this summer.

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