It Was a Bad Primary Night for the Bipartisan Establishment
There were clear winners and clear losers in Tuesday's primaries - and,
yes, there was a clear trend.
The winners were Democratic insurgents and Republican outsiders-and,
intriguingly, labor unions and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
were incumbents and insiders on both sides - including President Obama and Senate
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Minority Leader
But the biggest loser of all was the notion that the real action this
year is on the Republican side of the primary ballot.
In fact, it is all over the ballot. And that offers Democrats,
especially progressive Democrats, both causes for concern and roadmaps
for the rest of the election cycle. That's where the trend that matters
comes in: 2010 is shaping up as a year when populist anti-Washington
sentiment (with a healthy layer of anti-bank and anti-big business
messaging) plays well, no matter what party label is on a candidate.
That's something Democrats must understand if they hope to prevail come
Let's begin by breaking the races down:
Pennslyvania Congressman Joe Sestak's victory was the "headline"
story of the night and it confirmed that Sestak was right when he
calculated that Pennsylvania Democrats-who has have been voting against
Arlen Specter since 1980, when he was the Republican senator they could
never quite oust, would relish an opportunity to do the deed in a
Democratic primary. Specter's party switch was celebrated in Washington,
and even in the Pennsylvania capitol of Harrisburg, but it remained a
tough sell with Democratic voters at the grassroots. Sestak's impressive
54-46 victory was indeed confirmed that, and his election night
declaration that "this is what democracy looks like" was less a message
for Specter than for the Democratic party establishment that-including
President Obama-that tried to sell a five-term Republican senator
(albeit a reasonably liberal one) to Democratic voters.
In Arkansas, Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, a centrist with
conservative and corporate tendencies, also offended the base. She fared
slightly better than Specter, gaining more votes that her chief
challenger in the primary, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who won
essential support from organized labor and progressive groups. But
Arkansas is a southern state where a runoff election is required if no
candidate gets 50 percent of the vote. (The trend was running 33 percent
for Lincoln, 42 percent for Halter.) So Lincoln and Halter will face
one another in a June 8 contests that will be a bitter battle between
national Democrats who are backing a lame incumbent-including President
Obama and former President Clinton-and a populist insurgency that will
have all the labor support it needs. Lincoln could still win but, at
this point, she can only prevail by turning the race so ugly that she
destroys her own chances in November.
Obama will have to keep backing Lincoln and that's too bad because it
pegs him as a president who is more about being a Democrat than about
the "change" theme that elected him.
But don't think that Obama was the only DC player who got on the
wrong side of the voters.
In Kentucky, Rand Paul's big Republican primary win was a blow to
McConnell and the GOP party establishment-particularly former Vice
President Dick Cheney, who despised the mildly anti-interventionist
stances taken by the son of anti-war Congressman Ron Paul. McConnell put
his credibility on the line when he backed insider Trey Grayson. Paul
had the support of Tea Party activists, but there was a lot more going
on with the man who celebrated his victory by quoting the rock band
Rush's libertarian lines about how "glittering prizes and endless
compromises/shatter the illusion of integrity" and declared that he had
no intention of making nice with the establishment. His November race
was made easier by Democrats, who passed over populist Lieutenant
Governor Dan Mongiardo in favor a cautious centrist Attorney General
But the open Kentucky seat is currently held by a Republican, so a
Paul win would not shift the partisan makeup of the Senate - just as a
Sestak in Pennsylvania would hold a Democratic seat.
The real news from the partisan divide came from Pennsylvania's
12th congressional district,
where voters filled the seat that went vacant with the death of
Congressman John Murtha. This was supposed to be the big race for
Republicans, who noted that the district voted for GOP presidential
nominee John McCain in 2008 and has generally been trending to the
right. Boehner threw everything he had, including money and (suntanned)
face time into the fight. So, too, did Pelosi, who raised money and
pulled all the strings she could for Democrat Mark Critz while, at the
same time, giving him the space he needed to frame out a relatively populist
message that made few
accommodations with the Obama administration.
Pelosi had a big ally in organized labor, which worked the district
well and hit all the right notes when it came to fair trade and busting the
banksters. The AFL-CIO alone
organized efforts that made 33,000 phone calls, knocked on 16,000 doors
and distributed 75,000 worksite flyers at 63 work sites in the
The result: A solid win for Critz.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Chair Rep. Chris Van Hollen was
right when he said: "This was the only race in the country today where a
Democrat faced off against a Republican and the results are clear."
That said, Democrats are not in the clear.
This is a volatile year. Indeed, there is at least as much volatility
on the Democratic side as the Republican side-despite all the Tea Party
The primary season is helping Democrats in that it is allowing voters
and grassroots groups to clear away weak and disappointing incumbents.
But Democrats ought not presume that they can run in November on a
stay-the-course message. There is clear anger with Washington, as
evidenced by the defeat of Specter, the forcing of Lincoln into a runoff
and the nomination of Rand Paul. Democrats need to harness that
anger-no easy task for a party that controls the White House, the Senate
and the House-and to be flexible enough to allow candidates to run as
real populists. Like Halter in Arkansas, Critz was loud and proud in his
criticism of big banks and big businesses that let American workers and
communities down by outsourcing jobs and factories.
Pelosi and the unions seem to be reading things right.
Obama and his White House team might want to take a few notes from
the speaker and from labor leaders like AFL-CIO President Richard
Trumka, who noted, correctly, that Pennsylvania winner Critz won as a
populist whose "victory demonstrates that when a candidate stands tall
and proud on issues such as jobs and trade the public will see through
the lies and slime hurled by the right wing and big business."