May 19, 2010

Specter Deflector

According to broad swaths of the mainstream media, yesterday's Congressional primaries was about deep voter anger.

After all, Pennsylvania voters fired Arlen Specter -- the longest-serving member of the US Senate.  In Kentucky, Republicans voting to replace retiring Senator Jim Bunning, brought back Rand Paul, a hard-charging Tea Partier who wants to eliminate the Department of Education, for a second interview. And Arkansas voters sent a shot across Blanche Lincoln's bow, forcing her into a runoff to keep her Senate seat.

At the same time, Barack Obama went 0-for-4 in candidate endorsements:  putting the candy-cane arm around Specter and giving him a big thumb's-up didn't do much good against insurgent Democratic challenger Joe Sestak, a one-term congressman and former Navy admiral.  Perhaps sensing where this thing was headed, the White House purportedly tried to clear the decks for Specter last summer by promising Sestak a cushy gig in the administration -- if he bowed out of the race.

Sestak stuck to his guns, as it were, and Spector went down in flames in the Democratic primary.

That seems to mean most incumbents are in jeopardy, and the Democrats are in power, so most of the Democrats up for re-election are vulnerable, right?  And that Obama's juice is running dry, especially outside of Washington -- right?

Not so fast.

The real takeaway from the polling on what some were calling Super Senate Tuesday, seems to be that there is no real takeaway.  At least, not one you can paint with a broad brush.  There is some kernel of truth to the angry-voters-sending-a-message thing, but the big picture, to me, is a lot more nuanced.

Specter, for example, had a lot of real problems beyond a widely reported lackluster effort by the White House.  Stapling a bright blue D over the faded red R after his name didn't help him in a closed, registered-Democrats-only primary, especially after Sestak torched him by highlighting his a 40-year record as a party-line Republican who voted for the Iraq war, supported Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and backed Bush's tax cuts.

Dems may have heard Obama backing Specter in radio ads and robo-calls, but Specter couldn't run away from his four-decade record on the right, including his association with GOP policies that made liberals the angriest in the last ten years.  Add in Specter's political death-bed conversion to the Democratic Party, and not even JFK himself, rising from the grave and stumbling down Pennsylvania Avenue to cut a pro-Specter ad, could have convinced the base on this one.

Not to mention Specter is, like, 100 years old or whatever.

In Kentucky, Rand Paul had a lot of money, a great image and was probably the truest expression of the so-called "angry voter" -- it was a GOP primary, the Republican base is sharply divided, and no Democrat has won federal office there in decades.  Given that, it perhaps is no surprise Paul soundly defeated Trey Grayson, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand-picked successor for Bunning.

In his victory speech, Paul vowed to "take back our government" -- though it remains unclear who took his government away, or why -- by thrashing whomever the Dems put up against him, and followed up by double-dog-daring the president to campaign in the Bluegrass State.  It will be interesting to see whether the nuttier elements of Paul's far-right message will resonate in the general election this fall.

As for Lincoln the incumbent, she won the primary relatively comfortably but couldn't scrape together the 50 percent of the vote to avoid a June runoff against fellow Democrat Bill Halter, the Arkansas lieutenant governor.  But that's largely because DC Morrison, a conserva-Dem, tripped her at the finish line: he jumped into the race and siphoned off nearly 13 percent(!) of the vote.

Yet what may go overlooked was the only straight-up, non-intramural, red-versus-blue election.  In Pennsylvania's 12th district, Democrat Mark Critz walloped Republican Tim Burns by double-digits, seizing the House seat once held by the late Jack Murtha. That win for the Dems came in a conservative-leaning district that Republicans spent a lot of money trying to take.

Coupled with generic polls that show voters still think Congress should remain in Democrats' hands, an improving economy and a slight but steady uptick in Obama's poll ratings, the win in Pennsylvania 12 should help Democrats, especially those in the White House, sleep a little easier after the Specter debacle.

1 comment:

  1. What so-called "angry voters" and sadly disillusioned Tea Partiers don't seem to get is that no matter who they send to Congress, and not matter how much reform they think they're shoving down the throats of Congress, it is the policy implementing bureaucrats who really govern in Washington. All this grandstanding is good entertainment but when the rubber meets the road, compared to career bureaucrats, elected officials are just short-timers largely viewed as annoying to what can easily become, a passive aggressive slew of very powerful technologically savvy government professionals. So I say to Rand Paul and the rest, "dream on..."


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