Three Ways of Looking at an Election

Looking for meaning in the victories of Rand Paul, Joe Sestak, and Mark Critz.

Sen. Arlen Specter. Click image to expand.
Sen. Arlen Specter

Campaign strategists and pundits hoping to find the Gospel truth in today’s election results weren’t disappointed: There was birth, death, and resurrection. Rand Paul was born as a national leader of the Tea Party movement. Arlen Specter’s long political career came to an end. And the Democratic Party and Blanche Lincoln were brought back from the dead.

The most dramatic moment of the night was Specter’s defeat. It’s hard to imagine the Senate without him. This is the man who wrote Never Give In, a book about battling cancer while serving as a senator. But his other book— Passion for Truth—tells us why he lost. Subtitled, in part, “Impeaching Clinton,” it offers one of many clues as to why it was hard for a senator who spent almost five terms as a Republican to reinvent himself as a Democrat.

The most important news of the evening came out of the 12th congressional district in Pennsylvania. The Democrat, Mark Critz, won handily in a Republican-leaning district that went for McCain two years ago. Democrats are going to have a tough year this year. History is against them, the polls are against them, and an electorate angry with Washington punishes the party with more representatives in Washington. But this is a story they can whisper to themselves quietly at night to make the demons go away. Maybe things won’t be so bad after all. It’s also a great story for Democratic organizers trying to motivate the troops to turn out in an off-year election.

But Critz’s victory was mixed for Democrats. Labor unions worked tirelessly to deliver this election for the party, which spent $1 million on the race. That amount of money and effort will be hard to duplicate in every contested congressional district. Also, it’s worth noting that Critz won by distancing himself from Democratic leaders in Washington and running against Obama’s health care plan. He boasted in an ad that he would have voted against it had he been in Congress.

If there is a message for Democrats coming from this race, it’s how to combat Republicans who want to make the election a referendum on Obama. By focusing on local issues and keeping the race from being a referendum on their leaders in Washington, Democrats can be competitive. The question is: Will every Democrat have as much local cover as Critz did? He wrapped himself in his former boss, Jack Murtha, who held the seat for 37 years.

This result may also cause Republicans to do some rethinking of their national strategy. It’s not that they’ll suddenly start paying attention to local issues. Every politician does that, where they can. But they might rethink their effort to run against Obama. Except they can’t. That’s what motivates their voters. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, those who said they wanted a Republican Congress were asked why. Only 31 percent said because they approved of Republican policies; 64 percent said because they wanted to stop Obama.

Rand Paul won handily in Kentucky and launched himself as a national Tea Party leader. The press is always trying to find Tea Party stories where they may not exist, but in this case Paul was the one hyping the movement. “I have a message from the Tea Party,” he said in his victory speech. “Washington is horribly broken. The Tea Party movement is a message to Washington that we are angry and we want to do things differently.” (This strategy is far different than the one Marco Rubio is pursuing in Florida. Also a Tea Party favorite, Rubio is working to keep a little more distance in the general election, where he must court moderates and independents.)

The question for Paul now becomes whether his message can translate in the general election against Jack Conway, Kentucky’s attorney general. Democrats in the state are enthusiastic. They turned out for their primary race in greater numbers than they did in the 2007 gubernatorial primary, a possible sign that they might turn out for Conway in November. Nationally the question for Paul is how he will handle his increased profile as a Tea Party leader. Will he seem like an oddball when his words are broadcast far and wide, or will he appear as a compelling voice for a nation of people fed up with business as usual? 

But there are also intraparty dynamics worth watching in this race that will continue after the primary. Kentucky will be the first place the Tea Party will try to meld with the Republican Party. Will there be tissue rejection? Not if Mitch McConnell, who backed Paul’s opponent, Trey Grayson, can help it. McConnell knows that some things are necessary in politics. Immediately after the race was called for Paul, he issued a glowing statement about the Republican nominee and his anti-Washington message.

McConnell isn’t just doing this to repair his party at home. He’s also got a mildly annoying challenge to his authority from a fellow Republican senator, Jim DeMint, who endorsed Paul and heralded his victory as a defeat of party insiders like McConnell.

In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln received more votes than her opponents, which was a remarkable achievement given that she was considered finished a few months ago. But it may be only a temporary reprieve. Labor unions are going to continue working against her. They’ve had a very good night, securing the victory in Pennsylvania’s 12th district and nearly defeating a powerful incumbent in Arkansas. Their efforts in the June 8 runoff will serve to advertise the message by the AFL-CIO’s new leader, Richard Trumka, that Democrats can’t take labor’s support for granted. Adding injury to Lincoln’s night, the derivatives legislation she championed—and that some analysts believe helped her win back some Democratic voter support—looked like it was being shredded by fellow Democrats in the Senate.

The night showed just how limited Obama’s political power is. He said he’d work all-out for Specter, but he didn’t campaign for the senator in the final days. That may have been a wise reservation of his political capital (he’s already been ineffective in previous races), but it also demonstrated how much has changed since 2008, when Obama was talked about as a force that could remake the political landscape. Critz won by running away from Obama’s signature achievement, and Lincoln, whom he supported, was forced into a runoff. For a president who is still far more popular than the Democratic Congress he aims to help, yet who is unable to translate much of that popularity to do so, this condition may be best described as limbo.

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