Sarah Palin has special medicine. That’s about the only clear conclusion to be drawn from Tuesday’s primary results. She backed five candidates in Arizona, Florida, and Alaska—and they all won. The rest of the results from the evening defied easy matching. The themes of anti-incumbency and voter anger are still out there, but the candidates who mastered those forces (or avoided them) did so in different ways.
In the Republican senatorial primary in Arizona, big-spending incumbent John McCain beat back J.D. Hayworth, who tried to run as the real conservative and picked up some Tea Party support. But in the Republican senatorial primary in Alaska, big-spending incumbent Lisa Murkowski looks like she may lose to her challenger from the right, Tea Party favorite Joe Miller. In the Florida Democratic Senate primary, late-starting rich guy Jeff Greene couldn’t defeat Rep. Kendrick Meek by calling him a career politician. In the Republican gubernatorial primary in the same state, however, late-starting rich guy Rick Scott was able to defeat state Attorney General Bill McCollum by painting him as a political insider.
The lesson is the fundamental one in politics. Candidates and states are different. A lack of a consistent narrative is also to be expected. Still, in election years we always look for some clothesline on which to hang it all. It takes a lot of hand-waving and hokum to find one in Tuesday’s results.
Nevertheless, we can say this: Sarah Palin is having a good morning. Twenty of the candidates she’s endorsed have won. Ten have lost. That’s a pretty good record. Her biggest victory looks like it might come in the Republican Senate primary in her home state. Joe Miller wasn’t well-known and spent only about $300,000 on his race against incumbent Murkowski. Analysts were predicting he’d get trounced and that Palin would be embarrassed. He is now a few thousand votes ahead, though the outcome won’t be certain for about a week.
Whether Miller wins or not, Palin has already won. She didn’t go all out for Miller but she worked for him more than a lot of her other endorsed candidates, promoting his candidacy but also tearing down his opponent. Palin can take some credit for a portion of his good showing. There are other reasons, too. Miller had Tea Party funding and support. He also probably benefited from a ballot initiative that brought out conservative voters who wanted the state to notify the parents of young women getting abortions.
Palin now has more support for a favorite story line of hers: The pundits and so-called experts said things were going to go one way but she had faith; she knew the real deal. This is part of her larger pitch: that she understands something fundamental about conservative voters. That, in turn, is what voters believe about her, which makes them think she has a special light to guide the country out of the muck. How much real power Palin has to change minds or give candidates she endorses helpful exposure is still a big question. She may just be good at picking winners. But the Palin brand now grows ever stronger because other Republicans will want to access that magic. Even if they don’t believe it really exists, they have to pretend it does or risk winding up like Lisa Murkowski. If she ever decides to run for president, her opponents will have to treat her very gently.
In addition to the Alaska surprise, the other big one of the night came in the Florida Republican gubernatorial primary, where it is apparently worse to be accused of being a “career politician” than “felon.” Going into the election, Rick Scott and Democratic Senate challenger Jeff Greene looked like they were going to share the same story line: candidates whose personal fortunes couldn’t overcome their personal problems. Scott’s big problem was that his company paid the largest Medicare fraud fine in history. Two late polls showed Scott losing, but he overcame his bad rap by playing the outsider. He won a late endorsement by the Florida Tea Party and spent nearly $50 million labeling opponent Bill McCollum an insider.
McCollum was indeed the establishment candidate, backed by the state party, former Gov. Jeb Bush and the Chamber of Commerce. He had this support because no one, including the National Republican Committee, thinks Scott is a very good candidate. Democrats, who face a tough environment in the country’s 37 gubernatorial races, were ecstatic. They think they have a shot now in this important state. In a redistricting year, the next governor will have a say in how congressional districts are drawn—including perhaps one new congressional seat.
In Arizona, meanwhile, McCain proved once again that he is a survivor. There was once a period several months ago where it looked like he might face a threat from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. But McCain ran his campaign with the determination he used to show in the boxing ring in high school. Almost as soon as the bell went off, he rushed in and started swinging. Hayworth was a flawed candidate, and McCain used his every foible to paste him on the airwaves with negative ads. In the Colorado governor’s race, Democrat John Hickenlooper is running a cute new ad about how he won’t run negative ads. McCain wouldn’t have won without them. Other politicians will probably take the McCain route rather than the Hickenlooper one.
Finally, Ben Quayle won the Republican primary in Arizona’s third congressional district. The son of the former vice president survived allegations that he’d authored racy posts about Scottsdale women on a blog and posed with two children in a campaign flier to suggest that he had children he does not actually possess. In a campaign ad, he called Barack Obama “the worst president in history” and promised to come to Washington and “kick the hell out of the place.” Since his district is reliably Republican, he’s likely to win in the general election, which means he should probably get himself some sturdy boots.