There was only one race on Tuesday with an outcome that legitimately qualified as "shocking." Certainly there was a lot of turnover throughout both the House and Senate but all of it was, if not expected, at least somewhat plausible in the pre-election analysis. All of it except for the defeat of 18-term Congressman Jim Oberstar by a 50 year-old retired Northwest Airlines pilot named, I shit you not, Chip Cravaack. Even the RNC and the pro-GOP media seemed utterly shocked by Congressman-elect Cravaack's victory over one of the more well-established and -respected Democrats in the Midwest.
Political scientists are often accused of elitism for trying to tell voters what is in their own self-interest, but I will run that risk. Removing Oberstar from office is very, very contrary to the self-interest of the people in MN-08. The district is in the far northeast of the state and it is essentially a rural wasteland (former Mesabi Range iron country) excepting the "urban" areas of Duluth and Brainerd. Which is to say, the entire district is a wasteland. More accurately, and to quote a Minnesotan colleague from graduate school, "the entire district is one continuous Federal highway project." This is relevant because of the lack of meaningful alternative economic activity in the district, the primary exports of which are snow and suicide. And it certainly didn't hurt that Rep. Oberstar was the chairman (or ranking minority member when under Republican leadership) of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, better known in Washington as the High Temple of Targeted Economic Development Spending. You know, the slush fund.
Oberstar did a remarkably effective job of funneling highway projects to his district, and in fairness the horrible winters in the area made highway maintenance a more costly proposition than it would be in Texas, for example. Well, the people of MN-08 can kiss most of that money goodbye (although we'll reconsider that in just a moment). Chip Cravaack isn't going to be the chairman of anything, and the odds that he will be remotely influential in Congress between now and 2012 are extremely long. Jim Oberstar's job was to bring money back to his economically moribund district. Chip Cravaack's job is going to be to sit there with his mouth shut and vote how
Glenn Beck John Boehner tells him.
But! But! Surely the voters of MN-08 will be thrilled by this development. They want nothing more than to see "pork" and "earmarks" and "government spending" slashed to zero as soon as possible. After all, that's why they voted for Chip Cravaack, right? Let's hope that the Tea Party delivers what they asked for.
One of the following two things will happen, and in my view the most interesting part of the next two years will be seeing how this plays out.
1. The new GOP majority will slash all of the local pork projects along with lots of other government spending, decimating the economies of places like MN-08. Wait. What I mean is, they will grow the economy by cutting business taxes, so that small businesses in MN-08 (you know…road construction companies) can start hiring again! Free enterprise to the rescue! In the complete absence of demand, surely a tax cut will hammer away at unemployment. Sarcasm aside, if they actually cut everything they have promised to cut, rural districts are about to get bent over and unceremoniously fucked.
2. The coalition of incoherent retirees, slack-jawed rubes, and businessmen that elected the Chip Cravaacks of the world will have a remarkable change of heart about government spending when they realize the likely impact on their own district. And Rep. Cravaack will respond the same way every other Congressman in the history of the institution has responded – by declaring the highway funds, ag subsidies, and other Federal dollars to his district "essential spending" while decrying the money funneled to the other 434 districts as "waste" and "pork."
Option #1 would force voters to live with the consequences of their decisions and the policies they claim to support. As our entire political culture is built on the foundational idea that no one has to live with the consequences of their own actions, that means that Option #1 is about as likely as a Pittsburgh Pirates World Series appearance in 2011. Option #2, of course, means that absolutely nothing will change. The giant freshman class of Republicans – an unsightly parade of the lame, the halt, and the ugly – will very quickly fall in line with the norms of the institution, trying their damnedest to secure their own re-election by redirecting as much of everyone else's tax dollars to his or her district as possible.
In short, this is going to be hilarious, at least until 2012 when they successfully blame the fact that the deficit continued to grow (thanks to more irresponsible tax cuts without either offsetting spending cuts or the subsequent economic growth that supply-siders constantly promise) on those goddamn liberals.