Washington, DC has a unique culture unlike any place on the planet (at least that I can think of, correct me if I’m wrong). Most capital’s are cities. They have a wide cross-section of people, not necessarily unlike those in the rest of the country. Government offices are fairly well integrated with the rest of the city. Members of congresses and parliaments integrate fully into a much larger context. To be sure, the culture surrounding them is usually biased toward cities, but the overwhelming majority of politicians aren’t separated nearly as cleanly from private citizens as those in the District.
For those who have never been to Washington, the greater DC area is generally divided into three parts: government employees, the political class, and the urban poor. The district is designed such that there is a clear division between government buildings and the rest of the city. In particular, the area surrounding the Mall is well-kept, and often bustling with tourists or protesters who are there to feel a part of the District’s history and power. There are several government buildings in the area, including the White House, the Capitol, several museums, etc. The area is distinct, and the awe of the power and history is palpable.
Outside of that, there are nice residential areas both in the District itself and in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. These are inhabited mainly by government employees, but also by political-types, i.e. lobbyists, reporters, Congressional staffers, etc. The friends, neighbors of politicians, and the parents of their childrens’ classmates (in many cases) are those who are employed by the government. In addition to the natural desire to think highly of the people around them comes the fact that their decisions could lead to the unemployment of the couple next door, their child’s best friend’s father, etc. Government, in the minds of politicians who go to Washington, doesn’t protect and serve the people who sent them to Washington. It now provides jobs to their entire communities.
The other group is the impoverished, who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods with massive unemployment and huge drug problems. These people are largely separated from the two other groups. Politicians usually don’t encounter them in their daily lives. They only see enough to know that many of the people in those neighborhoods rely heavily on government support, be it for food, shelter, work, whatever. Again, government is the savior.
Given this environment, it is not necessarily surprising that politicians change when they get to Washington. Some change quickly, immediately awed by the power of the place. They see those who came before them telling them how things work. They have the importance and power of government impressed upon them. Others change slowly, as they become further and further removed from the environment whence they came. Washington culture absorbs them. Whereas in other world capitals, the government is among the people, in Washington government is separated from them. All of the people with whom they come into contact, be they other politicians, Congressional staffers, reporters, government employees, etc. are in Washington, directly or indirectly, because of the power that resides there.
This culture becomes all the more intoxicating in the United States Senate, Washington’s most exclusive club. The world’s greatest deliberative body, as it’s probably now known only to its members, has a unique awe to it. Its members have the longest terms of any federal elected officials, and recent years notwithstanding, its turnover is notoriously low. Outside of dictatorships, where else can people remain in positions of such power for nearly half a century? Even Presidents, egos though they have, are accountable after four years and know that they are finished after eight. In many cases, once membership is experienced, the worst possible thing a politician can imagine is losing it. Indeed, most Senators who hit the three-term mark probably don’t even entertain the notion.
Given the strength of the desire of Senators to maintain their positions, self-preservation, consciously or unconsciously, becomes their guiding force. Since the status quo is what got them there (often enough) and is certainly what kept them there, the last thing a Senator wants to do is rock the boat. That is not a small part of the reason that both parties prioritize protecting their own incumbents. In turn, many members follow the leadership in matters political – as opposed to policy – hoping to remain in the good graces of the powers that be. In some cases, this is thanks to a bet that support for that leadership will either go unnoticed by constituents, or, if noticed, be drowned out by the reelection support that stems from that support. Again, though, consciously or unconsciously, they also desire to maintain the cafe society aura of the Senate. It would be impolite, if you will, to change things too much. Just look what happens when people like Jim DeMint and Sen. Trainwreck somehow get invited to the party!
This delicate balance of support for the leadership in exchange for the support of the leadership, however, is in serious jeopardy today. I need not restate the battles that have been fought this cycle between the establishment and the grassroots. To this point, McConnell’s candidates have probably won enough races that the perception of the value of his support is strong enough to keep Senators in line. All things being equal, the default assumption is that it is better to have the current Leadership’s support than to take any risks. Indeed, it is in every Senator’s interest to vote for the winner in a leadership election. I will posit that that is why McConnell is correct in his assessment that he has the votes to be reelected as the Republican leader.
The problem for McConnell, though, is that that situation could be changing. This year’s primary battles have generally been fought on ground where he could afford to lose. In every case in which a McConnell-backed candidate has lost, Republicans nominated competitive candidates. Even with the Angle victory in Nevada making that race more difficult, Republicans have not yet turned a toss-up or Republican-leaning race into a Democrat-leaning race.
As such, the Delaware Senate race is unique. Although it is a small state and it could be problematic to read too much into a race with fewer primary votes than many mayoral primaries have, it could provide a strong indicator of the value of McConnell’s support. Indeed, his unpopularity with many conservative activists causes association with him to be toxic, though not deadly, to many Senators, especially those who have been in Washington a long time. To this point, though, the damage inflicted by the poison has seemed less than the alternative.
Should Republican voters in Delaware dispense with Castle, knowing full well that such a move would make the seat much more difficult (impossible?) to hold, just how valuable will McConnell’s support be? Indeed, if McConnell’s support is used as a fundraiser and rallying cry for insurgent candidates, could it actually be more injurious than helpful?