Is Buffalo’s Higgins the Next Lieberman?

higgins Is Buffalos Higgins the Next Lieberman?

There’s an interesting story in The Politico today that suggests about three dozen moderate-to-conservative House Democrats are potential targets for primary challenges from the netroots. Given the Ned Lamont/Joe Lieberman experience, this kind of talk is sure to generate some buzz.

The story is actually based on a post on the site OpenLeft.com from Matt Stoller, formerly of MyDD (and, if memory serves, he was also the in-house blogger for Jon Corzine’s $50 million New Jersey juggernaut in 2005).

One potential target is Buffalo’s Brian Higgins, of whom Stoller asks, “Why does this Bush Dog Democrat represent this overwhelmingly Democratic seat?”

I’m not sure that’s how I’d classify the 27th District, which, after all, was represented by Republican Jack Quinn for 12 years until his 2004 retirement. And Higgins only won the seat that year by about 3,500 votes – I believe it was the last race in the country to be settled.

The district does favor Democrats at the presidential level – though not as reliably as others, if you consider the high level of support Ross Perot received in it in ‘92 – and it is filled with union members. But I think there’s a difference between “Democratic” districts, where voters inherit their party registration, and “liberal” districts, where voters see politics in starkly ideological terms. I’m hundreds of miles away, but Higgins’ 27th strikes me as more of a Democratic district than a liberal one.

Stoller knocks Higgins for his New Democrat affiliation and his votes for warrantless wire-tapping and the 2005 bankruptcy bill, and writes that he “looks to me like a young local politician with familial roots in the district, but no particular aptitude to lead.” That actually sounds about right.

But I can’t see a primary challenge to Higgins getting anywhere, mostly because – as passionate as Stoller and others are about F.I.S.A. wire-tapping and the bankruptcy bill – Higgins’ supposed offenses don’t approach the kind of crucial threshold that Joe Lieberman’s did last year. Yes, Ned Lamont attacked Lieberman on a whole slew of apostasies, but the overriding issue was that Lieberman had cast himself squarely with President Bush – with his Senate votes and, more importantly, with his public rhetoric – on the Iraq war. The difference between the two was easy for everyone to understand. And the media attention that the race received – which would probably be absent from a Higgins primary challenge – didn’t hurt Lamont’s cause either.

More broadly, I do have some questions about the tactic of threatening primary challenges. It’s frustrating for the left, but if you look at many of the 38 Democrats listed on Stoller’s list you will realize that the party is lucky to get anything from most of them. Mississippi’s Gene Taylor, for instance, represents a district that gave George W. Bush nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2004. Taylor’s relative isolation from his party in D.C. is the very reason for his popularity back home. Make his life miserable, and he’ll either switch parties or run as an independent – and win. This doesn’t apply to every name on this list, but still.

The left would love to have workable 2/3 majorities in both chambers right now, which would allow them to overrule President Bush at will. But that’s unrealistic – now and in the ’08 elections. More interesting is the question of what happens if a Democrat wins the White House next year, a development the smart money now favors. Some of these “Bush Dog Democrats” might not be quite so vexing to the left then.