US Elections: The Sky Did Not Fall, Again
By Al Giordano
Tuesday’s elections in the United States of Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania disproved the slick media pundit conventional wisdom and its clucking Chicken Little believers wrong once again. For weeks we’ve heard it in unison from the teevee talking heads and the mynah bird beaks of mass media consumers-cum-bloggers: that 2010 is an anti-incumbent year, that Democrats are going down, will lose the US House of Representatives in November (Newt Gingrich, yesterday, predicted a November Republican gain of up to 70 seats and possibly control of the US Senate, too, including a defeat of Senator Barbara Boxer of California: Bartender, I’ll have what he’s having.)
Most of the races on the ballot yesterday were primaries and in that context political outsiders out-organized the insiders within both major parties. The only contest to test whether climate change has come to the Democrat-vs.-Republican rivalry happened in Pennsylvania’s Congressional District number 12, in a special election to replace the late US Rep. Jack Murtha, a conservative Democrat. How great was the supposed “anti-establishment” tide that the media has been crowing about? The winner was Murtha’s longtime Congressional aide named Mark Critz.
For the past twelve years Critz worked as the regional director for Murtha. He was the staffer who responded to constituents, wrote letters on their behalf, cut Federal red tape, issued flags flown over the US Capitol, attended local events and solved problems for individuals, families and small businesses in the district. In other words, he did the part of a Congressman’s work that is not ideological, the Representative's representative in the district. In Congress, he’ll likely be a “blue dog” conservative Democrat, like Murtha (and that is fairly representative of that district, which I passed through in 2008 reporting the US presidential campaign). It is a bellwether district, 95 percent white, in Pennsyltuckian Appalachia; the only CD in the country that voted both for Kerry in ’04 and McCain in ’08, a “swing district” extraordinaire.
And yesterday the Democrat got 53 percent of the vote, a comfortable margin of victory, in this supposedly “anti-incumbent” year even though Critz was the closest thing to an incumbent in the contest. His victory underscores that when it comes to US House elections – fantasies of the activists of left and right aside – “the issues” and ideology are secondary criteria for most voters. Most Americans look at their representative in Congress and think “what can he do for me?” They want to know that their US Rep. can "deliver for the locals." Critz was accurately seen as the one who could pull the strings for the district precisely because he had Congressional staff experience. The “anti-incumbent” revolution predicted from all quarters did not materialize in Western Pennsylvania. The proper reading of yesterday's result in fact brings the opposite conclusion: Incumbents who do the grunt work of constituent services will mostly survive in November.
Tuesday’s results screw with the narratives imposed by many players on the political stage, and not just Gingrich’s. White, college educated, progressive activists have invested heavily in a harmonious argument with that of the tea partiers of the right. The portrait they paint is that President Obama isn’t satisfying “the base” enough, not being “progressive” enough, and that therefore ideological voters on the left will stay home and Republicans will conquer the upcoming midterm elections. It is often said as a threat: Do what I say or you will lose because “we” will sit on our hands. It’s tiresome not merely because it is boorish and an act of aspiring bullydom, but also because those who shout it don’t really have enough of a “we” behind them to make good on those threats, and most of that “we” doesn’t knock on doors or volunteer on phone banks or organize communities. They are aspiring generals with blogosphere accounts, but without armies.
Rather, the tea-baggers and fire-baggers alike are merely trying to get out in front of a normal trend in midterm elections: the party in the White House usually loses an average of twenty seats in the House and three in the Senate. They simply want to set up the bowling pins to be able to crow credit if and when the ball knocks some of them down. For careful watchers of US politics, their gambit is superficial and transparent, one aimed only at the most gullible among us.
It is in that light we also now look at the US Senate primary results in three states yesterday. Senate races are typically more about ideology and “issues” than House contests, and that is even truer of party primaries for those 100 seats. An important one happened in Kentucky with interesting results in both parties.
On the Republican side, in which the more ideological Rand Paul defeated the GOP establishment-backed candidate Trey Grayson, who was Senate Republican Leader Bill Mitch McConnell’s – also of Kentucky - handpicked horse. Paul, of course, is the son of US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The conservative GOP party ideologues, true, went with an avowed ideological adherent to tea-baggery, but it is also true that they picked a Congressman’s son as their white knight. How “anti-incumbent” or “anti-Washington” is that, really?
But as Alex Pareene (who cut his teeth at Wonkette and Gawker) notes at Salon, the more interesting story out of Kentucky yesterday than the Paultard freak show on the GOP side is that turnout was higher in the Democratic primary contest, where Attorney General Jack Conway is the apparent – pending a possible recount - winner:
Did you know that there's a Democrat in the race for Jim Bunning's Senate seat in Kentucky? He's state Attorney General Jack Conway, and he might actually win.
With 99% of precincts reporting, Conway has received 44% of the vote. That's 226,773 votes. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo received 221,269 votes. Rand Paul, the runaway winner of the Republican primary, received a total of 209,159 votes. In other words, both Democrats received more votes than either Republican. Which doesn't make it sound like the GOP base is energized for the Rand Paul rEVOLution.
If Conway remains the Democratic nominee, Kentucky’s “safe red” Senate seat is suddenly in play, and a pebble in the shoe of Newt Gingrich's attempt to party like it's 1994.
In Pennsylvania, the defeat of US Senator Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary by US Rep. Joe Sestak is welcome news, as is that out of Arkansas where challenging Lt. Governor Bill Halter forced corporate Democrat Blanche Lincoln (D-Wal-Mart) into a run-off to take place in three weeks. The “we speak for a base we did not organize” crowd is of course crowing to take credit for both advances by the more progressive candidates after weeks of whining that the Obama White House had backed, at least in name, the two incumbents. Howard Dean's Democracy for America, MoveOn, FDL PAC, etcetera will now fall all over each other trying to push out their credit-taking press releases on both contests, but the real story happened with the ground game in each state. Once again, the Chicken Littles are torn between illusions of their own grandeur and their narrative by which Obama is portrayed as an all-powerful executive who ought to be able to change the course of everybody’s pet issues in a single pen stroke, and all at once!
Rick Hertzberg of The New Yorker lays some rational analysis on it all:
Arlen Specter was not “selected by leaders in Washington.” He selected himself. As one of the last of the moderate Republicans, he was headed for defeat in his own party’s primary. He thought (no doubt correctly) that his chances for survival would be better in the other party, so he switched. The White House promised him support because his vote was an absolute sine qua non for overcoming Republican filibusters, most crucially filibusters against the health-care bill, on which the fate of Obama’s Presidency and the Democratic Congress rested. If this was a “backroom deal,” it was one that the White House and the “Democratic establishment” would have been criminally irresponsible not to cut.
With health care safely passed, however, the interests of the White House and the national Democratic Party are better served by Sestak’s winning the primary. Sestak is an actual Democrat, not a Democrat of opportunity. As such he will be a far more reliable and sincere supporter of the President and the President’s policies than Specter would have been if, at eighty years of age, the cranky ex-Republican had been vouchsafed a sixth (and last) six-year term. Moreover, Sestak is more likely to beat the Republican nominee, the fanatical anti-tax ideologue Pat Toomey. If Sestak wins in November, he'll probably be a senator for a long time. Given actuarial realities, a reëlected Specter might have ended up having to be replaced by a gubernatorial appointee, and there is no guarantee that Pennsylvania’s next governor will be a Democrat.
So I don’t see how this is some sort of defeat for the White House or miscalculation on their part. It looks more like a series of rather brilliant chess moves.
Energized Democratic electorates in the Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas Senate primaries, plus the comfortable victory of the D over the R in a swing district in Pennsyltucky, once again show that the proclamations of “the sky is falling” by self-promoting blog narrators were not grounded in any reality close to our own.
Many still don’t grasp that in 2008, everything changed in US politics, which is increasingly fought on the ground with the methods of community organizing. That’s what explains the high Democratic turnout yesterday and the bellwether district in Pennsylvania remaining blue. And that – and not ideological tantrums on the Internets – will write the history of November 2010. Seems like the grownups are still at the driver’s wheel and, once again, the Chicken Littles were wrong. And that is of course, old news and history repeating itself again. How many times have I written this story? How many more will I have to pen? Oh well, at least we get to use images of that cute little feathered guy again.