Did yesterday’s elections bear out the “anti-incumbency” narrative that’s been building for many months now, in the media, in the halls of Congress, and among political observers inside and outside Washington? New York Times reporters Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse seem to think so:
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who left the Republican Party a year ago in hopes of salvaging a 30-year career, was rejected on Tuesday by Democratic primary voters, with Representative Joe Sestak winning the party’s nomination on an anti-incumbent wave that is defining the midterm elections.
In Kentucky, Rand Paul, the most visible symbol of the Tea Party movement, easily won the Republican Senate primary and delivered a significant blow to the Republican establishment. His 24-point victory over Trey Grayson, who was supported by the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, underscored the anti-Washington sentiment echoing across the country.
The outcomes of both contests, along with a Democratic primary in Arkansas that pushed Senator Blanche Lincoln into a runoff election in June, illustrated anew the serious threats both parties face from candidates who are able to portray themselves as outsiders and eager to shake up the system.
But Nate Silver thinks this is a shallow analysis. Take, for example, Joe Sestak’s defeat of Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Sure, you can spin it as the voters rejecting the incumbent but, as Nate points out, Spector’s transparently self-serving party switch and his failure to present himself as a likeable or effective candidate had a lot more to do with his defeat than the lukewarm support he got from Democratic bigwigs.
Then, there’s the other Beltway article of faith about the bruisin’ the Democrats are cruisin’ for. All we’ve been hearing since health care reform passed (and even before) is how the Democrats are doomed, doomed, doomed — destined and certain to be trampled by a herd of Republican elephants.
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.
Despite the caveats (the Sestak-Spector primary may have helped Democratic turnout, for one), Republicans regarded PA-12 as pivotal for their fortunes in the general election for several reasons:
This is the only district in the country that backed Kerry in 2004, but McCain in 2008, suggesting it was trending heavily in the GOP’s direction. If there’s going to be a backlash against Dems right now, this should be the place to find it. Indeed, it was the bulk of Burns’ platform — he specifically ran against Washington, Speaker Pelosi, and the Obama presidency, a pitch Republicans intend to duplicate in other competitive districts through the fall.
And while polls showed Burns with a slight edge going into the election, Critz nevertheless won fairly easily.
Marc Ambinder noted yesterday, long before the polls even closed, “If the Republican doesn’t [win], I think us pundits in Washington are going to have to revise our thinking about whether this is a wave election year for Republicans.”