What began in Indiana continued in Nebraska this week, as long-shot state Sen. Deb Fischer scored an underdog victory in Nebraska's GOP primary for the U.S. Senate, besting the efforts of two candidates more firmly established in the state's political hierarchy -- state AG Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg. Combined with Richard Mourdock's victory over Dick Lugar in the Indiana Senate primary, the 2012 midseason is developing a tidy upset narrative in down-ticket races.
It was a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed Fischer to take the race by the reins and ride the rail to an impressive victory. Bruning was the establishment favorite, but going into the race, he had reason to feel that wouldn't be a handicap. Having earned the backing of presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, as well as the Tea Party Express, he had every reason to believe he'd earned the "true conservative" imprimatur. But Bruning may have taken the Tea Party playacting a bit too far when he compared "welfare recipients to scavenging raccoons." And the Nebraska press went at Bruning pretty hard, running embarrassing stories and exposing baggage.
Meanwhile, Stenberg was making his fourth run for the U.S. Senate, and a candidate that desperate to succeed can usually be counted on to battle with the intensity of ... well, let's say a cornered raccoon! And so, for most of the campaign, the ostensible frontrunner and his presumed competition spent their time at each others' throats.
But even as he was beating back Stenberg's threat, the Club for Growth kept Bruning from breaking out. And as this melee wore on, it was Fischer who suddenly started gaining traction in the polls, coming to within spitting distance of Bruning. That's when the rest of what needed to happen fell into place for Fischer. She earned the late-stage endorsement of Sarah Palin (who, having also backed Mourdock, is 2-for-2 in endorsements thus far this cycle), and right when she needed it, Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts (more on him in a moment) kicked in $200,000 for Fischer's closing argument. Fischer had, up until then, been badly outspent. But in this three-way race, a little late money was all she needed to get over the finish line.
In the end, Nebraska conservatives looking for the genuine article picked correctly. But there are ramifications down the line now if she takes the Senate seat. Let's recall that when Mourdock won, he immediately promised an escalation in polarization and the furtherance of the spirit of compromise's slow death. With Fischer, you get much the same -- she's a debt-ceiling crackpot of the highest order, poised to join with her party's hostage-taking legislative gangsters. (This is why even though the Club for Growth backed Stenberg, they'll take this victory.)
Of course, Steve Kornacki sees Fischer's victory as part of a trend that benefits Democrats in general -- one in which "the Republican Party base's revolt against its own establishment" could "actually cost Republicans outright Senate control":
Fischer could end up being a perfectly competent candidate, one who isn't prone to erratic behavior and pointlessly inflammatory rhetoric and who doesn't have any serious skeletons in her closet. Certainly, she showed strong communication skills in her acceptance speech Tuesday night. And because of Nebraska's deep red shading and its particular antipathy toward Democrats in the Obama era, Fischer's margin for error is probably substantial. The same mistakes that derailed [Sharron] Angle in Nevada may only be the difference between, say, a 20- and 10-point win in Nebraska.
That said, Fischer absolutely is an untested candidate. Bruning and the race's other major candidate, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, spent months firing shots at each other and gobbling up all of the attention. The intensity of their battle probably helped create the opening that Fischer seized, but the late timing of her surge also spared her from facing much in the way of media scrutiny or attacks from her rivals. She raised and spent very little money, and not much is known about her.
While Nate Silver has, of late, seen the Senate races growing more favorable to the Democrats, we feel that Kornacki might end up being wrong about Fischer's chances here. Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator who is returning to retake his seat, was a weak candidate against Bruning, and there's no reason why Fischer can't exploit the same weaknesses. And as Kornacki admits, his speculation came ahead of any "meaningful" Fischer-Kerrey poll numbers. "Presumably," Kornacki writes, "the GOP nominee will begin with a solid lead." But we don't think he imagined this sort of solid lead: Rasmussen has Fischer up on Kerrey with a staggering 56-38 lead.
And we continue on the road to Texas and Utah to see if this trend continues.
BIG-MONEY BATTLES: When the week began, the air quickly grew thick with news of swelling war chests and the coming Super PAC-led cash Armageddon. Crossroads GPS was matching the Obama campaign dollar for dollar. Team Obama Re-Elect was rolling out a plan to stage a Super PAC "Super-O-Rama" (sweet fancy Moses, how the word "super" is going to get abused this year!) convention gambit -- a fundraiser to end all fundraisers in the sworl of peak Obama enthusiasm.
All of this created the sensation that two massively funded campaign behemoths were set to stage the electoral equivalent of the Battle Of Minas Tirith, and that the rest of us had better just bunker down for the coming waves of brutal destruction. But that's when an unplanned preview of coming attractions was dragged out into the light by Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, who obtained a proposed campaign against President Obama -- run by post-modernist campaign creative Fred Davis and funded by the aforementioned Joe Ricketts of Chicago Cubs/TD Ameritrade fame.
Their plan? Resurrect the old Rev. Jeremiah Wright story, stuff that 2008 zombie full of steroids and meth, and unleash hell to the tune of $10 million. But the exposure of this plan led to its immediate demise. Democrats gave it the eye roll. Sensible GOP strategists wondered, "What happened to the critique of Obama's first term?" And what followed was every single party to the plan stepping forward to repudiate it.
The minor figures Davis had proposed as the public face of the campaign publicly gagged. Ricketts himself denounced it. Romney soon followed. Ricketts, now exposed as a guttersnipe and a government handout hypocrite, has got real problems. He'd been seeking assistance from Chicago taxpayers to help him rebuild his private den of failure, Wrigley Field. Now, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel won't return his phone calls. And Romney, in his attempt to make a clean break from Ricketts' plan, was reminded of previous comments he'd made about Wright, prompting this quote for the ages: "I'm not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was."
So by week's end, we got a taste of what the epic tilt between deep-pocketed campaign flunkies was really going to look like: big, loud, stupid nonsense. As Matt Yglesias points out, there's no reason to have believed otherwise: If some rich twits have got enough money to buy slime by the vat, there's no reason a guy like Fred Davis shouldn't take the money and give 'em whatever pile of idiot-carnage they want.
But here's the secret about these big Super PAC battles. In the presidential election, they are going to get a lot of attention because that's where the media eyeballs are. But in the end, the two sides are both going to stack up so much green that either these efforts will be a complete wash, or there's going to be scandal or backlash when one side takes things too far. And as the amount of money makes it a wash, the "going-too-far" part is incentivized, because it's the only way to break out of the deadlock.
Down ticket, it's a different story. There's not as much attention being paid to the lower races. The candidates don't have as much insulation against incendiary attacks. And most critically, those who want to influence the game with their personal fortunes get more bang for their buck. Ricketts is an obvious example -- if he'd gotten his $10 million wish, he'd have plunged the campaign into silliness and made it harder for Romney to square with Obama on his preferred economic argument. (Plus, his Wrigley Field ambitions have been dampened.) But in Nebraska, $200,000 bought him a Senate primary. It's pretty clear where the money was better spent, and where the effort was wasted.
So as the national story of big money in the presidential race gets hyped, store this away: The real Super PAC action is going to happen down-ticket.
TEAM OBAMA RE-ELECT TROLLED BY POLL: The first two polling outfits to report general-election numbers put an interesting strain on everyone's partisan preferences. First out of the gate was the New York Times/CBS poll, which had Romney beating Obama 46 to 43 percent. Next came a Fox News poll, which had Obama up on Romney 46-39. This made for strange bedfellows, as conservatives touted the New York Times for a change whilst Democrats cuddled up with Fox. Everyone's attitudes are evolving on marriage, it seems.
But it was the Obama campaign that ended up getting rattled by the results. In the cross-tabs of the Times poll, Obama was losing women to Romney 46-44, a result that wasn't matched anywhere else, and which really hampered their ability to remain the champion of female voters. So the campaign cried "bias." Now, as Dylan Byers went on to report, there were well-founded reasons to take the Times poll results with a grain of salt. Still, it's May. A little early to be freaked out by a certain poll result.
Of course, when is a good time to get publicly flustered by a poll result? We say right around a quarter-till-never. There's nothing to gain from frantically waving your arms at a single poll. In a race like the one we're likely to have between Obama and Romney, if you wait a little while, you'll get more data and a better picture. If a trend develops, then it's time to worry, yes. But publicly sweating this stuff makes you look skittish. And it makes us wonder if there's more to that than a single poll result.
As it happens, the rest of the polls did tighten. The current Real Clear Politics polling average puts Obama up 45.8 to 44.1. Obama's electoral map shows a slightly more favorable spread. But this is going to be a close race. Everyone should get used to it.
RON'S RUN DONE, RAND'S RUN BEGUN? We're going to just lightly tread on the idea that Ron Paul's begun the final stage of his 2012 campaign. This week, Paul has suspended participating in future competitions on the primary calendar. But he is still actively looking for delegates and is putting together a plan for the Republican National Convention. So his effort continues. We want to make that clear, because we don't want anyone else accidentally calling up the New York Observer to complain about our coverage.
As we have been very dutifully reporting all this while, the Paul campaign is not entirely about competing for a presidential nomination. It is also geared toward building out the campaign infrastructure for future Paulist efforts. This year, the Paul campaign put a huge emphasis on political training and professionalism -- the goal was to put a shaved and well-groomed face on the movement, train foot soldiers in the hidden mechanics of the primary system, and get acolytes used to working with state-level party functionaries. This shrewd strategy has caught more than a few people off guard, especially the media: While they were scoffing at Paul's long-shot chances, the Paul team was building a better machine.
Now, Ron Paul is making decisions that suggest he's moved on to considering the future of his movement, and especially, his son's place in it. The timing of the decision -- it comes before the Kentucky primary -- is the key, as Ben Jacobs notes: "If Ron Paul actively stayed in the race and didn't win any delegates in Kentucky, he would damage his son's political stock in a state where, despite being a U.S. senator, Rand Paul is still a political outsider."
Now, the elder Paul can keep his delegates bound to him and try to extract concessions in Tampa, while Paul fils sits pretty, waiting for his turn to carry the banner.
DNC MIA IN #WIRECALL: Greg Sargent has been all over the story of the Democratic National Committee's anger-inducing reticence to spend money in the effort to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the upcoming recall election that pits Walker against the man he defeated in 2010, Tom Barrett. Four days ago, Sargent spoke to an apoplectic Wisconsin Democratic Party official, who complained, "Scott Walker has the full support and backing of the Republican Party and all its tentacles. We are not getting similar support." Now, it looks as if the DNC might get involved, but as Rosie Gray reports, it's an open question as to whether they might do more than dip a toe in the water.
The anti-Walker forces on the ground think this is a winnable race, but the run of play is currently going in Walker's direction. So why no DNC? Le sigh. This is just the typical behavior of the Democratic Party establishment -- they want to hold on to the passion that the recall supporters have manifested in Wisconsin and spread it across the nation by November. But they are just too terrified of losing an election. Even if Walker retains his seat, if the DNC believes they can extract a "winning message," they see that as "victory."
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Jonathan Chait sums up Mitt's "Prairie Fire" speech about the budget deficit: "It's hard to wrap your arms around Romney's argument, because it's an amalgamation of free-floating conservative rage and anxiety, completely untethered to any facts, as agreed upon by the relevant experts." Fact-checkers went on to savage Romney's oration.
ROEMER REACTS TO AMERICANS ELECT FAILURE: The former Louisiana governor talks to Dave Weigel about Americans Elect's decision to give up: "I'm digging deep for words, but all I'm coming up with is bullshit." Buddy Roemer's hopes for proceeding now lie in earning the Reform Party's nomination. Roemer had wanted Americans Elect to invigorate his campaign -- and among "declared candidates," he was the frontrunner. But Buddy, we warned you that going in with Americans Elect was a huge mistake.
COMING UP: Next week, we have primaries in Arkansas and Kentucky. Arkansas could be a close race ... for the Democrats. Huh, what? Well, remember how some prison inmate garnered a substantial portion of West Virginia's primary vote against POTUS? Well, different state, similar concept: "[A]ccording to a Talk Business–Hendrix College poll conducted on May 10, Obama leads John Wolfe, a virtually unknown candidate, in Arkansas's 4th congressional district by only 7 points, 45–38."
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