Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tuesday’s primaries: Nobody knows nothin’

To go by the predictably partisan reaction to Tuesday’s primary election results, the outlook for Democrats and Republicans alike is something straight outta “Rashomon,” an outcome whose success or failure was purely a matter of perspective. That’s not really new; since the 2008 election, political matters have been spun according to the party doing the spinning. The wild card this time is the Tea Party movement and a political victory achieved tonight that could tweak the two-party pendulum swings we’ve been used to for years. Or not.

The primaries in three states — Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky — were closely watched by political insiders, who saw the outcomes in the states comprising 6 percent of the country as leading indicators of what’s coming in November. What the results are indicators of is very much up for grabs.


For the punditburo, the marquee contest of the night was the Democratic Senate primary race between Rep. Joe Sestak, a veteran of 31 years in the Navy and a little more than three years in the House; and Sen. Arlen Specter, the wily Machiavellian incumbent whose career in the Senate goes back five presidents. Going in to Tuesday, the smart money said the Specter machine would prevail again, returning Specter, 80, to the Senate for one more hurrah.

The smart money stayed home. Sestak defeated Specter by eight percentage points, clearing the field for a battle against Republican challenger Pat Twoomey, founder of the conservative Club for Growth. “This is what democracy looks like,” Sestak said Tuesday night. “A win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.!”

By any measure, Sestak beat Specter by running a strong campaign that didn’t depend on the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for leverage. Telegenic and relentlessly on-message, Sestak benefitted from being the newcomer, the fresh face in Pennsylvania politics with an anti-Washington message that rang with voters from across the state.

But in other ways, Sestak didn’t so much win the primary as Specter lost it. Analysts took note of Specter’s political volte-face on April 28, 2009, when Specter, then a Republican facing a tough challenge from Twoomey in the GOP primary, announced his jump to the Democratic Party.

Political optimists were initially prepared to assume Specter made his switch on the basis of principle. At least until Specter was interviewed admitting, with dangerous candor, “my change in party will enable me to be re-elected ...”

That frank admission became part of a devastating Sestak campaign ad that included the killer line: “"Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job: his — not yours."

On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews put it in terms anyone could get their head around: Specter’s bolt to the Dems “reminds me of the guy who puts on the woman’s dress to get in the lifeboat on the Titanic.”

Specter’s honest statement was preceded by another that’s come back to haunt him. The day he switched last year, he said, “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”

What a difference a year and 21 days makes.


Tuesday’s second big attraction was the contest that Tea Party activists will be trumpeting loud and long for weeks and months to come. Rand Paul, an eye doctor and the son of Republican iconoclast Rep. Ron Paul, defeated Trey Grayson, the Kentucky Secretary of State, hand-picked by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who tapped Grayson to run after pushing the incumbent, the tireless obstructionist Sen. Jim Bunning, into retirement for fear Bunning would lose the seat to a Democratic challenger.

Despite McConnell’s imprimatur and the backing of the party machinery, Grayson lost by fat double digits to Paul, the novice whose opponent in November will be Jack Conway, the state attorney general, who eked out a win Tuesday over Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the Democratic primary.

McConnell, almost as Machiavellian as Specter, wasted no time in sucking up to Paul, who has said he may not support the continued presence of McConnell as leader in the Senate. Paul lost no time in making clear his ties to the Tea Party movement championed by, among others, political personality Sarah Palin. “I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back," he said Tuesday night.

The unanswered question is: Take it back from whom? And take it back for whom? When Paul’s name is on the ballot in November, there will be a Republican “R” behind it, which begs the question of who besides Paul the party loyalists would have voted for anyway, given the Tea Party's supposed populist clout. Gene Robinson of The Washington Post, speaking on MSNBC Tuesday night, said the Kentucky outcome “continues the plot line of a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party.”


Not that the Democrats should be left out of that kind of existential political drama. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, under withering fire from mainstream Democrats and the party’s progressives, now faces a June 8 runoff against her Democratic challenger, Lieut. Gov. Bill Halter, because Lincoln couldn’t muster the 50 percent needed to prevent the runoff.

What's at stake, besides her political future, is the matter of how far a Democrat can wander off the grounds of the party-platform estate and still curry the favor of the Democratic base.

For months now, Lincoln has positioned herself among constituents as a Democratic free thinker not obliged to be in lockstep with party policies and legislation. She fought hard against a key provision of the Obama health care plan, siding with Republicans. She also opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, the so-called “card check” proposal that would make it easier for workers to form unions.

On Tuesday night,, the ardently progressive political action organization, was as happy about Lincoln’s quasi-rebuff as they’d have been if a Democrat had defeated a Republican in the general. “Make no mistake, this is big news,” wrote MoveOn’s Michael Sherrard, in an e-mail to supporters. “For the first time, voters have shown that Democrats who side with corporate interests to block President Obama's agenda will suffer for it at the ballot box.”

The new act in this passion play opens on June 8.

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The upshot of all this is that, despite what the spinners of either party say, a revolt is in the works against anyone seen as being part of the Washington orthodoxy. Some (myself included) thought that voters would make some distinction between incumbents of Specter’s duration and others whose briefer time in Congress would make them Incumbents In Name Only. If this snapshot of 6 percent of the electorate is any indication, discontent may be wider than first thought.

Or not. A lot’s still undecided. Despite Paul’s pithy rhetorical election-night broadside, his win in Kentucky may be better news for the Democrats than for the Republicans. Paul’s victory connects the Tea Party, and its highly visible right-wing extremists, to a state that’s been allergic to electing Democrats for the presidency since Bill Clinton in 1996.

It’s thought that Paul generally ran a better, more effectively insurgent campaign than Grayson did. The name association with his own father didn’t hurt Paul, either.

But philosophically and racially, the Tea Party contingent is all of a piece with the state’s demographics. Paul’s win doesn’t necessarily convey any communicable gravitas unto the Tea Partiers. It doesn’t so much indicate any TP inroads into mainstream electoral politics so much as it points to a solid base of support among voters inclined to be Tea Party adherents in the first place: the same cohort of white, rural, middle-class voters who used to be Republicans, and will be again. In November. Given that fact, where’s this big crossover traction for the Tea Party going to come from?

And the Democrats have a similar problem. Mainstream Dems may be inclined to point to Sestak’s win as a sign of a new progressive-leaning mood among Pennsylvania Democrats. But another race in the state on Tuesday muddies the waters.

In the Pennsylvania 12th, a longtime stronghold for the late and legendary Democratic Rep. John Murtha, Democrat Mark Critz beat back Republican businessman Tim Burns in a special election to determine who completes the term of Murtha, who died in February. Critz — a conservative Democrat who is anti-abortion and pro guns — could well turn out to be a Pennsylvania version of Blanche Lincoln, someone willing to go his own way, and so far to great effect.

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Somehow it all comes back to the predictability of the unpredictable. The ones who think that Tuesday’s vote may be the bellwether of big changes in Washington are forced to contend with the results of the latest Associated Press-GfK poll — a survey suggesting that, from the standpoint of controlling Congress, Tuesday’s vote may be the bellwether of nothing.

In that poll of 1,002 Americans conducted from May 7-11, AP/GfK found that most Americans want the Democrats in control of Congress after this November’s midterm elections.

“The tenuous 45 percent to 40 percent preference for a Democratic Congress reverses the finding from a month back on the same question: 44 percent for GOPers and 41 percent for Dems,” said the poll. “The new readout came as the economy continued showing indications of improvement and the tumultuous battle over the healthcare law ... finally signed in March faded into the background.”

In assessing what Tuesday’s results mean in and of themselves, and what they portend at the national level, it’s a good idea to consider the wisdom of the world of the movie industry — like politics a realm of human experience defined by groupthink and sausage making in the service of something bigger. Screenwriter William Goldman, not known for political forecasting, observed years ago the clear-cut, indisputable lesson of Tuesday’s primaries: “Nobody knows nothin’.”

Image credits: Sestak, Critz: MSNBC. Blanche Lincoln and husband: Danny Johnston/Associated Press.

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