Last month the Pew Research Center reported that only 22% of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing always or most of the time. And that was the good news for incumbents:
Favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as for Congress, have reached record lows while opposition to congressional incumbents, already approaching an all-time high, continues to climb.Significantly, a majority of Americans (52%) see the members of Congress themselves as the source of their dissatisfaction. Only 38% attribute their frustration to “a broken political system.”
Last night’s election results in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas seem to bear that out:
- In Kentucky, political newcomer Rand Paul trounced Secretary of State Trey Grayson. As a proxy for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Grayson had inadvertently become the Washington insider in the race despite never having been elected to federal office. And, as the son of libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, the younger Paul was also a proxy of sorts. He came to embody the desire of voters in the Bluegrass State to send the ultimate outsider to Washington. His mission? Shrink the federal behemoth, balance the budget and reduce the federal debt while exhibiting some long overdue humility from our public servants.
- In Pennsylvania, given the opportunity to oust a five-term incumbent Senator with plenty of inside-the-Beltway clout, Democratic primary voters cheerfully complied. They dumped Arlen Specter in favor of a relative newcomer, second-term Rep. Joe Sestak. In his victory speech, Sestak struck a defiant populist tone, characterizing his victory as a “win for the people” over “the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.”
- In Arkansas, Democratic primary challengers from both the right and left squeezed incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln into a run-off against the state’s leftist Lt. Governor, Bill Halter. While Halter galvanized Arkansas’ Democratic base on the political left, businessman D. C. Morrison ran to Lincoln’s right as a conservative, Reagan-loving Democrat. Morrison cast his vote for Ron Paul in 2008 and spent considerable time railing against Obamacare, bailouts, the stimulus bill and mounting government debt, Morrison pulled a not insignificant 13% of the Democratic vote.
Seniority on the most powerful congressional committees and endorsements from Washington’s most powerful insiders, including President Obama, were liabilities last night.
So, what explains the outcome in the special House election to replace recently deceased Rep. John Murtha (D-PA)? An aide to Murtha, Mark Critz, handily defeated Republican businessman Tim Burns in a contest many pundits felt would serve as an early barometer of Republican prospects in November. As one political consultant noted last night: “I think us pundits in Washington are going to have to revise our thinking about whether this is a wave election year for Republicans.”
Ron Brownstein, the brainy political expert at National Journal, argues that to regain control of the House, Republicans must prevail in seats such as this one. Districts where there is little racial diversity (i.e., where whites comprise 90% or more of the electorate) and few attended college. Murtha’s seat, Pennsylvania-12, fits this profile to a tee.
Get ready for an outpouring of new analyses spouting a new conventional wisdom, one that dismisses the power of the Tea Party movement, and questions whether 2010 will be a watershed election after all.
But, if Critz’s victory is to serve as some sort of a blueprint for Democrats, it will require some serious triangulation. Critz, after all, campaigned (rhetorically, at least) to the right of most Washington Democrats. “I opposed the health care bill,” he insisted during a debate, and then added for good measure that “I’m pro-life and pro-gun. That’s not liberal.” As with the outcomes in those Senate primaries, Washington’s Democratic establishment cannot draw much solace from this development.
There is an overriding lesson for conservatives from last night’s results as well.
Many are prematurely confident that November will be one of those rare “wave” elections that upend the Washington power structure and realign our politics. Maybe. But the early warning signs have been there for everyone to see for awhile now, at least since Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-MA) historic election in January. Savvy liberal political strategists and worried Democratic primary voters, moreover, have had ample time to adapt to the demands of an angry and increasingly conservative electorate. Few Democrats in swing or conservative districts will run as Pelosi or Obama liberals. Instead, expect their rhetoric to morph the populism of Joe Sestak into the conservatism of Mark Critz. As Rand Paul said last night:
I have a message, a message from the Tea Party. A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We’ve come to take our government back.