A five-term incumbent senator with the backing of every major institutional player in the state lost his re-election bid this evening. The handpicked candidate of the most powerful Republican lawmaker in the Senate did much the same. A Democratic congressional aspirant who ran against his own party's health care reform platform won a special election in a district John McCain carried in 2008. And a two-term incumbent with the backing of the president found herself in a run-off election by night's end.
Tuesday's slate of dramatic primary elections created a whirlwind of dramatic storylines about the state of American politics. But if there was one thread to tie it all together it was that the traditional constructs of party politics -- perhaps the notion of a left v. right continuum itself -- was in need of updating.
Certainly, the mini-super Tuesday of 2010 established the fact that incumbency is no virtue in the current climate. Indeed, for the first time since 1980, incumbent senators of both parties -- Republican Robert Bennett of Utah and Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- have lost their seats in primary races. The tremors indicating as much were felt hours before results came in on Capitol Hill where lawmakers seemed thankful for the distance they had from primary process.
"This is an election where people are sending a message from the ballot box," Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) told the Huffington Post. "I think the message should be heard here."
But the message of repudiation sent on Tuesday seemed as much directed to established politics as it was to the political establishment.
There was the Kentucky Republican primary, where a self-confessed political novice, Rand Paul, upended a candidate groomed and mentored by the Minority Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell. The belle of the Tea Party ball, Paul's desire to abolish the Department of Education and the IRS (among other colorful policy prescriptions) gives him conservative bonafides. But his antagonism of the Fed, his opposition of the Afghan surge, and his skepticism of the Patriot Act are positions that, on any given day, could put him in the cahoots with the chamber's only avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders.
On Tuesday, Paul's election was viewed almost strictly through the lens of what it said about Republican prospects in Congress. "The most important thing about Kentucky is that regardless of who emerges from the primary that person will be front runner going into November," offered Ed Gillespie, a longtime GOP strategist. "I am hard pressed to see the Republican nominee for the Senate losing in the general in Kentucky."
The more important message, in the end, could be that the ideological foundations of the GOP are changing - marinated, as it were, in a Tea Party brew.
The trend isn't unique to the Republican Party. In upstate Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Mark Critz, a longtime aide to former Congressman Jack Murtha was able to hold on to his former boss' seat by promising policy prescriptions that weren't Democratic. Attacked relentlessly for being a rubberstamp for the Pelosi-Obama agenda, he nevertheless pledged to vote against cap-and-trade legislation and said that had he been in office months earlier, he would have opposed health care reform.
For these heresies, Critz was forgiven by the party and labor establishment, both of which worked doggedly to get him elected and held him up as an exemplar of their tactical brilliance once he was.
Not so much in Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln's opposition to her party on the very issues that Critz also cited as internal differences earned her the enmity of union officials and progressive organizations. The two-term incumbent was unable to avoid a run off election against her primary challenger, Lt. Governor Bill Halter, on Tuesday night, after failing to capture 50 percent of the vote.
Labor officials saw in the outcome a justification for the $5 million they spent on the race. The real benefit, in the end, may have been the practical policy adjustments that Lincoln felt compelled to make. In the weeks leading up to the primary, the Senator produced a bill governing the trading of derivatives (the virtual insurance instruments that played a major role in Wall Street's collapse) that was beyond the toughest scriptures offered by the Obama White House or Democratic leadership (two institutions, it should be noted, that had endorsed her candidacy). It wasn't a liberal solution. It was a cross-partisan one. Conservatives, likewise, rebelled on Tuesday evening when word spread from the Hill that leadership would water down the Lincoln amendment.
The message -- whether with Lincoln getting tougher on regulatory reform, Critz's watering down his positions for a moderate district, or Paul offering a populist blend of Tea Party politics -- seemed relatively consistent. Policy principles trumped party dogma. To put it another way: voters wanted to feel compelled to vote rather than told whom to vote for.
As Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO would say after news of the Arkansas recount emerged: "Our efforts were about more than a single race. We said we were going to be aggressive about supporting candidates who stand with working families and we backed that up with action."
Even in Tuesday's highest-profile election this seemed to hold true. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn) had, in his brief (and second) soiree into Democratic politics, become a reliably liberal vote in the United States Senate. For it he earned the support of the same AFL-CIO that caused Lincoln such headaches. But voters in the state couldn't shake the feeling that his was an act of political expediency rather than a heartfelt conversion. The union conglomerate had 1 million members in Pennsylvania compared to the 20,000 in Arkansas. And yet it's practical impact on each race was the inverse of the number of boots it had on the ground.
In the end, it proved too difficult a task to motivate people to vote for a candidate whose beliefs seemed, perhaps, insincere or out of touch.
"Campaigns are not won by being top down, but bottom up," explained Donna Brazile a longtime Democratic strategists. "The ground swell in primary is weak because the Democrats are the defending champs. But come fall, there will be plenty to remind people about. And you'll see the real fight."
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