Picking through the confetti after last night’s election parties around the country, we find ….
All the evidence pointing to monster Republican House gains this fall—the Scott Brown upset win in Massachusetts, the scary polling numbers in once-safely Democratic districts, the ever-rising number of Democratic seats thought to be in jeopardy—was contradicted Tuesday.
In the only House race that really mattered to both parties—the special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania’s 12th District—Republicans failed spectacularly, losing on a level playing field where, in this favorable environment, they should have run roughshod over the opposition.
Given the resources the GOP poured into the effort to capture the seat and the decisiveness of the defeat—as it turned out, it wasn’t really that close—the outcome casts serious doubt on the idea that the Democratic House majority is in jeopardy and offers comfort to a Democratic Party that is desperately in search of a glimmer of hope.
That’s a strongly worded thesis, but reporters Jonathan Martin and Charles Mahtesian back it up, noting for example that President Obama’s approval rating in that district is just 35 percent and that John McCain carried it in 2008. I know the area from my days in Pennsylvania, and it’s pretty conservative. It was indeed a missed opportunity for the GOP.
However, I’d be a little more cautious than the folks at Politico. I think that in general, it’s a mistake to overread results from a single district and extrapolate them nationwide.
On the other hand, the outcome of three Senate primaries from around the country offer a deeper data set for analysis, and all three confirm a broad dissatisfaction with politics as usual and the Washington establishment.
In Pennsylvania, longtime incumbent Arlen Specter was rejected by Democratic voters in favor of U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a former admiral and a more outspoken liberal than Specter.
“Elected five times to the Senate as a Republican,” the Washington Post notes, “Specter had the support of President Obama and the political leadership of his state, but he ran into rank-and-file resistance inside his new party and became the third member of Congress to lose his own party’s support in the past two weeks.”
“In fairness to Arlen,” Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell told the New York Times later, “if the economy was OK and there was no anti-incumbent wave, this wouldn’t have been a close election.”
In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln ran into similar sentiment and may soon be joining Specter on the sidelines. It was no surprise that Lt. Gov. Bill Halter was able to hold Lincoln under 50 percent in the Democratic primary and force her into a runoff. However, the tightness of the race was the surprise of the night in my book.
Lincoln drew 45 percent of the vote compared to Halter’s 42 percent, and those are bad numbers. In effect, 55 percent of Democratic voters in Arkansas rejected their party’s incumbent senator, and it’s hard for a candidate to overcome that. If the more liberal Halter does indeed go on to win the June 8 runoff, he would have a harder time holding an already at-risk seat in November for the Democrats. But clearly, primary voters aren’t in the mood for that kind of strategic calculation.
Nowhere was that message more clear than in Rand Paul’s resounding victory in Kentucky’s GOP Senate race. And in case it had escaped notice, Paul drove it home:
“I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words,” he said in his victory speech. “We have come to take our government back.”
Paul’s victory raises the same questions for Republicans that Democrats may face in Arkansas. Paul’s deeply conservative views energized a rebellious party base, but how will they be viewed by a more mainstream electorate in November?
Even within his own party, Paul’s views are deeply divisive. In one poll, 43 percent of those who supported Paul’s GOP opponent, Ted Grayson, said they would not vote for Paul come November. And as Politico reports, Paul doesn’t seem to care:
“In his victory speech Tuesday night, Paul said nothing about Grayson and declined to extend an olive branch to his opponent’s supporters. Instead, he launched a fierce attack on President Barack Obama, accusing him of “apologizing” to dictators and moving the country toward socialism.”
November is going to be fascinating. Not to mention important.