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Eight Lessons From Tuesday's Primaries

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Lesson #1. Bad news for Republican leaders. First and foremost, the results from Tuesday night were very bad news for the Republican leadership.

In the lead-up to the vote, Republicans set the bar, claiming that a win by Tim Burns to fill the Pennsylvania 12th District House seat of the late John Murtha would be the harbinger of this fall's "Republican wave." It didn't happen. The overwhelmingly blue collar, Western Pennsylvania district elected former Murtha Economic Development Director, Mark Critz by a solid 53% to 45% margin of over twelve thousand votes.

Democrats have won all of the last seven special elections for the House. The result in Pennsylvania 12th will damage the Republican "sweep" narrative that they hoped to use to raise funds and create momentum for the fall mid-terms. Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee sunk a million of its scarce dollars into the failed effort.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, former Admiral and Congressman Joe Sestak is likely to be much tougher for Republicans to beat than thirty-year veteran Arlen Specter. His image as an outsider and giant killer won't hurt at all as he takes on "Club for Growther" Pat Toomey next fall.

Of course, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was yesterday's big loser as Tea Partier Rand Paul clobbered the McConnell establishment candidate, Trey Grayson, 59% to 35%. The magnitude of the defeat will fuel the mounting consensus that McConnell is an incompetent leader.

Finally, Democratic turnout in the Kentucky Senate primary won by Attorney General Jack Conway far exceeded Republican turnout in the national "marquee" Republican Senate race. This bodes very well for Democratic chances to make the Kentucky Senate contest a major battleground this fall.

Lesson #2. Dance with the ones that brung ya. In politics, voters don't like people who they think have abandoned their core constituencies or their core beliefs.

Sestak's brilliant final TV commercial closed the deal on his argument that Specter had supported Bush's Republican agenda until it served his personal political interest to jump into a Democratic lifeboat.

Bill Halter forced Senator Blanche Lincoln into a runoff because the Democratic base -- both inside and outside of Arkansas -- thought she betrayed the core principles of the party. That was especially true of organized labor.

And Paul appeals to a motivated Republican base that feels disaffected from the Republican "elites" - people who hate Wall Street as much as they hate Washington.

Lesson #3. In primaries turnout is king. It will be in the mid-Terms as well. Any time you have an election that generates historically lower voter interest, turnout is the key variable that will determine victory.

Two factors affect differential party turnout:

  • Inspiration.
  • Organization.

In the Pennsylvania 12th CD, Democratic turnout was sparked by the hotly contested Senate primary, and by a well-organized ground operation conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Obama's Organize for America.

In the fall, Democrats must rely heavily on inspiring and mobilizing their base to win. That's why the White House and Congressional leadership need to press hard to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform to inspire Hispanic voters and Clean Energy to inspire its younger voters. That's also why they need to leave no stone unturned when it comes to get-out-the-vote operations.

Lesson #4. In this economic climate, populism always beats being an "insider."

It's almost always true that Democrats do better when they are positioned as populist outsiders than when they allow themselves to be positioned as "elite insiders." That's true especially in bad economic times.

The Great Recession has left voters angry. The elites who allowed it to happen will be blamed. In the mid-terms, Democrats better make sure that the real culprits -- the big Wall Street Banks and the rest of the "$10 million bonus" crowd -- are blamed and held accountable. If not, those who run government -- Democrats -- will be.

Last night the candidates who positioned themselves as populist outsiders were successful. Those who were labeled as insider elites lost. Paul, Sestak, and Halter all successfully positioned themselves as populist outsiders.

Lincoln would have done even worse, had she not become a champion of holding Wall Street accountable in the Senate over the last few weeks.

Lesson #5. The power of endorsements has big limits -- and sometimes they backfire.

Endorsements in politics are massively overrated. They mostly matter when they are accompanied by money and troops -- as in the case of the Labor backing for Halter against Lincoln in Arkansas. Specter's material support by the Democratic organization in Philadelphia clearly kept him in the game, but even that was not enough.

In fact, in the current anti-insider environment endorsements can be downright damaging. The sum of Specter's endorsements probably did him more harm than good by branding him as the insider, Washington candidate. The same was true of Grayson in Kentucky.

President Obama did what he had to do for Specter. The President had no choice but to back both Specter and Lincoln, since he has desperately needed their support for his initiatives in the Senate. But it is difficult to transfer political loyalty, and especially the personal qualities, that make Obama such an attractive candidate to a guy like Specter.

Lesson #6. All politics are personal. In the end, voters cast their ballots for individual people. Specter did not lose because of his voting record or position on issues. In fact, Sestak's voting record is pretty similar to Specter's since Specter switched parties. Specter lost because Sestak convinced the voters that Specter was a flip-flopper that lacked core loyalties and values -- that he was a pure opportunist.

Organization and turnout certainly helped Critz win in Pennsylvania 12. But much of his support came because he convinced the voters that he was the heir of Jack Murtha who many twelfth district voters personally admired. Critz was Murtha's Economic Development Director -- the guy who helped bring home the bacon, who knew many people in the district firsthand for a long time.

Lesson #7. Personalizing the race is not necessarily "localizing the race." Saying all politics is personal, does not mean -- as some commentators persisted in arguing last night -- that "localizing" Congressional races is good politics.

All of last night's Senate races were very much about the national economic and political situation. They created a narrative about individual candidates in the context of the broad national narrative. But they did not ignore national issues for "local" issues. The Critz race was not about local "issues," it was about local candidates.

In fact, history shows clearly that the party that nationalizes mid-term races -- that controls the national narrative -- almost always wins.

The popularity of the president by Election Day will greatly affect the outcome. As will the general feeling of people about the pace of economic recovery.

But the major reason controlling the national narrative is so key, is that it will help define who is on the offense and who is on the defense.

Lesson #8. When you're on the defense, you're losing. Last night, that proved true once more. The campaign that was on the political offensive -- that defined the debate on its own terms -- won.

In the fall, when it comes to health care Democrats cannot spend time "defending" health care reform. We can explain it and assure that people have clear information about how it will improve their lives. But the bulk of our political communication should explain the damage Republicans will do to people's health care if they take over the House or Senate.

For instance, we need to explain to seniors that Republicans want to abolish Medicare and replace it with a voucher system -- which is exactly the plan the Republican ranking member of the Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, has laid out. Focus groups show that when swing voters learn that about the Republican platform, it has a massive impact. People like the Democratic program of Medicare.

Instead of defending "cap and trade" we need to attack Republicans for protecting Big Oil and for maintaining our dependence on dirty oil that pollutes our natural resources, and foreign oil and the countries that produce it that wish to do us harm.

The narrative that the media wants to pitch is that Democrats are in for a terrible defeat in November. If Democrats let their guard down, the media could be right. But if, for the next six months, we remember the lessons of Tuesday's primaries, the outcome will be very different.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.