For all of us political junkies, last Tuesday was pretty darn exciting. There were three key races of interest: the Senate races in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas. I’ll outline a little bit about each and then, like a good pundit, tell you what I think it all means.
In Pennsylvania, we have the curious case of Arlen Specter. A long time moderate Republican; he has been in the Senate for a loooooong time. Long enough to become Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2009, seeing the polarization of the Republicans in Congress (most of whom took the I’ll-say-no-to-anything approach to problem solving for our nation,) and the fierce competition boiling up on the right side of the aisle, he switched parties. He became a Democrat, and a pretty darn reliable Democratic vote at that. He voted for the stimulus and for health insurance reform and a whole host of other minor votes.
It looked like clear sailing for his reelection. Obama, Biden and the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, all lined up to endorse and support him. In short, the Democratic establishment had nominated their man, and expected the people to rubber-stamp him. The people had other ideas.
Enter Joe Sestak, former Navy Admiral and straight line Democrat. He was ready to take on Arlen Specter. He ran a hard campaign, pressing Specter for his Republican votes and positions. Long story short, he won last Tuesday, 54 percent to 46 percent. A pretty solid victory. He advances to the general election.
Kentucky had two exciting races with similar dynamics. On the Republican side, there was the party-endorsed nominee, Trey Grayson. A Mitch McConnell protégé, Grayson was annointed to run for the seat vacated by Jim Bunning. However, the Tea Party and some major conservative organizations had other ideas. They liked Rand Paul, son of Libertarian Ron Paul. Rand Paul ran far to the right of Trey, organized a great campaign and whomped the establishment candidate 58 percent to 35 percent. That wasn’t just a win, it was a sledgehammer.
On the Democrat’s side in Kentucky was a moderate and a progressive. There was Mongiardo, who was anti-health insurance reform and frequently criticized his fellow Democrats for being too liberal. Then there was Jack Conway, who ran as a populist, a “let’s kick the bums out, get our money back from the banks and stop the insurance industry from ripping us off” sort of campaign. Conway won, not nearly as decisively as the other races, but still a solid win.
Finally, all eyes turned to Arkansas. Arkansas has a strange law where if no candidate gets over 50 percent in the primary, there is a run off. Incumbent Blanche Lincoln, corporate democrat who railed against health care reform and repeatedly sabotaged any effort to regulate the banks, was forced into a run off with Bill Halter. Like Conway and Sestak, he ran an outsider campaign, supported health insurance reform and bank regulation.
All these races had three things in common. The party establishment threw their support behind the insider or incumbent, and lost in all three states. Does this speak to a weakness on the part of Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama? Maybe. I think it more speaks to a general feeling of anti-incumbency. People are tired of the same people gumming up the works; they are ready for a new set of answers. Which brings me to my second point.
This was not a move toward Conservativism. I know that’s what a lot of the spin is, but I don’t see it. The more progressive candidate won in all three races. Those who opposed health insurance reform and banking reform lost (except for Rand Paul.) If anything, it tells me that people are frustrated with politicians slowing down progress or nixing solutions simply because the other party came up with it. They want results, not more yammering.
Lastly, there is no enthusiasm gap. In all the races I described, the voter turnout neatly reflected voter registration on both sides of the aisle. So yes, the Tea Parties and Glenn Beck and the rest have fired up the Republican base, but the Democratic base seems fired up too. In short, there was no advantage in terms of enthusiasm.
That said, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas are not Whatcom County. It is hard to say how this effect will play out locally. But I do know that last Tuesday, the base of both parties ignored their leaders and asserted their right to nominate whom they chose.