As senior Democratic party officials call on superdelegates to announce their presidential candidate preferences, one group remains stubbornly resistant to their pleas—junior members of Congress.
Just back from two weeks at home with their constituents, some worry about a backlash from voters no matter what they do.
Rep. Jason Altmire, a freshman and an uncommitted Pennsylvania superdelegate, voiced a fear evidenced by many of the undecided superdelegates - that the increasingly sour and bitter tone of Democratic voters, prompted by weeks of Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton trench warfare, could pose political peril if superdelegates make the wrong choice.
"Three months ago, everyone in the district was saying how great it was to have these strong candidates,” he said. “Now whenever I'm at a rally or somewhere else, I hear people saying, 'I used to like Jason, but if he endorses the one I don't like, I'm not going to vote for him.' "
For junior members, who tend to be more vulnerable to challenge than more entrenched senior members of Congress, the concern is that making a choice at this point — any choice — could harm their own reelection hopes. All Democratic members of Congress are superdelegates.
Those anxieties could help explain why exactly half of the 42 freshmen Democrats in the House — and exactly half of the eight Senate Democrats elected in 2006 — have yet to commit to a presidential candidate.
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In Indiana, for example, the three House Democrats elected in 2006 have not sided with a candidate, nor has Congressman Andre Carson, a 2008 special election winner. In Arizona, the state’s two House freshmen are on the sidelines as are the two freshmen Democrats from Florida. Ohio’s three House freshmen are also uncommitted.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a second-term Missouri Democrat who is supporting Clinton even after his district voted narrowly for Obama, said he understands many lawmakers' reticence to commit.
"Self-preservation is the top priority. Why would they go out and do something that's not in their best interests? They make enemies."
Altmire said the necessity to resolve the race before it becomes too acrimonious was a top discussion topic for lawmakers returning from their two-week Easter recess.
"I think the momentum is building toward resolving it. I'm feeling that. Everybody sees the potential to damage our nominee," he said.
Of course it’s not just the most junior Democrats who have been reluctant to weigh in. Other House and Senate Democrats also appear to be measuring the political impact of their superdelegate votes. Seven of the 12 Senate Democrats running for reelection in 2008 are uncommitted. And three of the four House Democrats running for Senate are also uncommitted.
The only one of the four to endorse, Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey, announced his support for Clinton back in April 2007, roughly a year before he announced his Senate bid and at a time when almost no one would have predicted that his superdelegate vote could have repercussions.
Political maneuvering doesn’t account for all the uncommitted votes. In California, where 11 of the state’s 33-member Democratic delegation have yet to make their choice known, the list of fence-sitters includes the state’s most endangered Democrat, freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney, but it also includes some of the party’s most senior members, including Reps. Henry Waxman, Pete Stark and Howard Berman, not to mention Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Indeed, the distribution of endorsements there fails to follow any pattern. Of the 33 Democratic-held congressional districts—22 of which backed Clinton, 11 for Obama—the endorsements of the lawmakers representing these seats are al over the map.
Only a third of House Democrats from California have actually endorsed the candidate who won their district. Another third are backing the candidate who lost in their district and the remaining third still can't make up their minds.
California Congressman Mike Honda, a four-term Democrat who remains uncommitted though his district backed Clinton, seemed in no hurry to announce his own decision or to end the Democratic contest.
"The Republicans cannot hurt us. We're not doing dirty work on each other. Each candidate is presenting their case. Open debate is healthy for this country."
Senior party leaders, however, are less sanguine about the potential for damage to the party and its candidates.
Several Democratic leaders have put forward plans to require the undecideds to make up their minds well before the convention. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has suggested requiring superdelegates to decide before July 1. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has suggested holding a special superdelegate convention in June.
Texas Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, elected in 2006, said that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had broached the idea of bringing all the undecided members together not long after the next few primary elections with the aim of forcing a decision.
"We all agree that we need to decide before [the August convention]," Rodriguez said.
A spokeswoman for Hoyer said no such meeting was scheduled.
Altmire said that Democrats are starting to feel that the time for deliberate decision making had come.
"There's an added sense of urgency that wasn't there before. There's a lot of talk that we need to move forward."