WAYNE, PA. – The honest take-away from last Tuesday’s primaries in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky – including the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District – is that any bearing on November’s midterms is as clear as mud.
We tend to over-interpret everything, but no big-picture conclusion emerged here. No single issue or idea accounted for any outcome.
In Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race, incumbent Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter could not overcome everything going against him as he faced off with U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
Specter’s challenges included being the incumbent in a year when voters are not keen on those, being a stranger in a strange land – as a Democrat – and looking like an opportunist for being there, his age, his health, and the widespread voter devaluation of experience and expertise.
Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman points to “the view among some of the more attentive and highly educated Democrats that he really wasn't one of them. Plus, he had even less chance of beating (Republican Pat) Toomey than Sestak had.”
In Pennsylvania’s special election, it was funny what a difference a few weeks made. Soon after Congressman Jack Murtha died, the chattering class seemed certain that a loss of his 12th District seat for Democrats would be the symbolic end of their brief Washington reign.
“As Republicans came closer to actually winning, the narrative shifted,” says political number-cruncher Isaac Wood. “Suddenly the GOP had this in the bag and a loss here would be Punxsutawney Phil signaling two more years in the political wilderness for Republicans.”
In the end, Democrat Mark Critz’s victory proved that some of the hyperbolic talk of a GOP wave in the fall is indeed overblown – but extrapolation is severely limited by the circumstances.
Wood says that the GOP must win many races such as this one if it wants to have a sweet November: “But the results here in no way predict the general-election outcome six months out. It was one special election in one district, determined in some part by the high Democratic turnout generated by the Senate primary.”
November’s midterm election will be nationwide, and no one party will benefit from a lopsided turnout. In fact, this same House race will be closely contested again by Republican Tim Burns – and Critz’s term as a congressman could be quite short.
As for other races, three data points do not a trend make.
Wood says that, so far, incumbents have been closely challenged and it is tough to see the results as anything other than a rebuke of the political establishment.
University of Arkansas political scientist Bob Maranto says U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s problem is that she is a little too liberal for Arkansas, but a little too conservative for the Democratic Party.
“That basic fact leads her to sidestep on a lot of issues, which makes her look dishonest,” Maranto explains. “Interestingly, she probably would have won the primary without a runoff, but a Democrat well to the right of her played spoiler.”
Maranto says Rand Paul’s insurgent-candidate victory over Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson just shows you can't beat something with nothing.
“Paul has issues; his opponent just had a resume, along with insider status in a year when that is a negative,” says Maranto.
The insider in the Democrats’ primary in Kentucky also went down in something of an upset.
Anyone taking the pulse of November’s midterms should be cautious. Much of the speculation about a political revolution is an accident of timing. Looking further down the primary calendar, very few opportunities exist for similar upsets.
“Last Tuesday’s victories for outsiders would be much less noticeable if they had occurred months apart, but coincidence conspired to place them together,” says Wood.
That’s not exactly an exciting narrative – so don’t expect the press or either party to latch onto it, regardless of its accuracy.
The long and the short of it all: No fat lady sang for Democrats, and Republicans still have time to figure out that, in an insider-vs.-outsider political year, keeping their races local is the key.
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