Sen. Robert Byrd was important in many ways.
But lost in all the immediate tributes about the West Virginia Democrat’s intellect and fighting spirit, his devotion to the Senate and the Constitution, and his history-making career was this simple but extraordinary fact: He won an awful lot of elections over an awfully long period of time.
Political longevity is an increasingly rare phenomenon these days. Byrd’s 58 years in Congress is amazing and record-breaking, of course. But how many officeholders going forward, particularly in this volatile political era, are going to be able to sustain their popularity for such a long period of time?
Byrd’s death comes just 10 months after Sen. Edward Kennedy succumbed to brain cancer. At the time, the Massachusetts Democrat was the second-most-senior Senator. And in 2008, the longest-serving Republican Senator, Ted Stevens, lost his re-election bid in Alaska. That’s a lot of institutional change for the Senate in a fairly short time period.
Incredibly, though, Byrd’s record may not stand that long. If he’s re-elected this fall and serves his full six-year term, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who is now 85, will also have spent 58 years in Congress. And Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who came to the House in 1955 and turns 84 next week, shows no signs of slowing down.
Byrd had something. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was the state and maybe it was the man. He was elected to Congress just before his 35th birthday. How many thirtysomethings who recently arrived in Congress can even contemplate the possibility of hanging around for another six decades?
In addition to Inouye and Dingell, 13 Members have spent more than half their lives in Congress, according to CQ’s “Politics in America.” The youngest of this group, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), is 57. He was elected to Congress in the Republican landslide of 1980.
To put Byrd’s achievement in perspective, Smith would have to serve until 2038 to mark 58 years in Congress. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility: He’d be just 85 years old then. But to put it another way, both of President Barack Obama’s young daughters would be eligible to serve as president in 2038.
The three youngest Senators currently serving were appointed to their jobs. Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) is 41, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is 43 and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is 45. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), at age 47, is the youngest elected Senator currently serving. He has seven years in the Senate under his belt. To match Byrd’s 52 years in the Senate, he would have to serve until 2055.
Byrd didn’t just win often — he won big. The 64 percent that he won over Republican businessman John Raese in 2006 was his lowest winning percentage since his first Senate victory in 1958, when he took 59 percent of the vote. He won his three House races with 56 percent, 63 percent and 57 percent.
What was his secret? Many people assume it was Byrd’s unparalleled ability to bring home the bacon that kept him so popular. And no doubt that helped. But Byrd, for all the years that he logged in Washington, D.C., for all his eloquence, and despite his dapper countenance, never stopped being the boy with the fiddle who came from the mountains and worked as a butcher and a shipyard welder.
When he first campaigned for the state Legislature in the 1940s, Byrd played his violin to draw voters out of their homes. That may seem anachronistic today, and in most places, it probably is. But West Virginia, more than many other places, clings to its traditions and its heritage. A lot of people revered Byrd not just because he was a historical link to that simpler era, but because he stayed, at heart, the same guy.
Go through the list of 99 Senators today and it’s hard to find anyone as beloved back home as Byrd. Respected, yes. Admired or feared for their political acumen, sure. But revered? Inouye comes closest. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) are probably the most popular politicians in their states. But none has the stature that Byrd did.
Of course, it’s worth asking whether any politician could attain the level of reverence that Byrd did in this day and age. While there is a bare-knuckle element to West Virginia politics, as there is in most places, it is still a small state, without a huge media presence, and it’s easy enough to swat away unwelcome political rumors. It wasn’t until his last election, after all, that Byrd had to deal with the Internet.
The question now is how much West Virginia politics changes with Byrd gone.
Two of the state’s three House Members, Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Alan Mollohan (D), are political legacies after all, and the state’s now-
senior Senator, after 26 years as the junior Senator, Jay Rockefeller (D), comes from one of America’s political royal families. It’s widely assumed that Byrd’s appointed replacement will be a placeholder, setting up an open-seat fight for 2012, when Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin will be the presumed frontrunner.
Do West Virginia politics now become more like the rest of the country’s? Probably. And that’s — at best — a mixed blessing.