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Angry Politics: 'Voters Gone Wild' in 2006

By Larry Sabato and David Wasserman

As of Tuesday, party nomination contests are "primarily" over (save for three states), and what a primary season it has been. But the same emotion that has characterized the summer primary season--the most powerful emotion in politics--shows scant signs of ebbing as we enter the fall.

There's a lot of anger on the campaign trail in 2006. And it's anger that is manifesting itself in several different forms:


The normal kind of anger in an election year, but more intense than usual because of polarized feelings about President Bush and the Iraq War among Democrats, and the blogger efforts among Democrats. We are seeing this category of rage play out in most of the highly competitive battles. Whether the heated rhetoric has escalated over Iraq (as in Connecticut's 4th District clash), the economy (as in Michigan's gubernatorial melee), or corruption (as in New Jersey's Senate bloodbath), an unusually high number of general election contests have already been nasty for many months.


The rarest public form of anger this year, yes, but it has produced the greatest cataclysm of 2006 so far, in the seemingly never-ending Lieberman versus Lamont epic. (See the Crystal Ball's August article [link] on the Connecticut Senate primary for more details.) Just under the surface, there have been pitched wars between the national Democratic Party committees on the one hand, and liberal anti-war, anti-establishment activists and bloggers on the other. As primary season progressed, we saw more and more intra-party contests transform from snoozers to bruisers. On Tuesday, Reps. Al Wynn (D-MD) and Ed Towns (D-NY) both came within single digits of losing re-nomination following eleventh hour surges by hard-driving challengers from the left, and one prominent long-serving Maryland state senator (Democrat Ida Ruben) even lost her reelection bid handily.

The most consequential Democratic fault lines, however, run right through Washington, DC. Strategically, Howard Dean's DNC and the leaders of the party's congressional campaign committees seem to be operating on different planets, with the former entity reluctant to sacrifice any territory for the sake of targeting the most competitive races---the latter entity's raison d'etre. All of a sudden, Election Day is less than two months away, and many Democrats genuinely worry that this tabloid-worthy organizational feuding will severely hinder the party's chances of fully capitalizing on the angry storm of anti-GOP resentment. Sure, a modest deal was recently struck between these groups to coordinate on getting out the vote, but if the unified and reliable Republican turnout machine succeeds at cutting party losses, the Democrats' unenthusiastic attempts at collaboration may best be remembered for coming a few days late and a few bucks short.


This version of '06 fury appears to be breaking out all over. From Arizona to Rhode Island, very heated struggles between moderates, conservatives, and ultra-conservatives were Tuesday's chief exhibit, a continuation of a trend we had seen developing in Texas, Michigan, and elsewhere over the past few months. And make no mistake--even right-leaning grassroots GOP ranks are irascible in 2006. Tuesday's 47 percent showing by charismatic conservative mayor Steve Laffey against Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and the plurality victory of Minuteman enthusiast Randy Graf in a southern Arizona House primary are more than just borderline evidence of the GOP base's flammability.

Conservatives are deeply upset with the Bush administration and the GOP Congress about the lack of fiscal discipline, corruption in the ranks, immigration, and a host of other subjects. A dangerous thesis has taken hold among many in the GOP: that it might be better to lose the '06 election and re-group. In American history, when a faction in the majority party decides the party is tired and could benefit from some time in the wilderness, the voters usually oblige. Most recently, the latest issue of Washington Monthly includes a cover story [link] featuring seven such articles from prominent Republican strategists, insiders and commentators.

Voters Gone Wild

Some analyses have improperly categorized 2006's rage as solely "anti-incumbent;" and though the electorate is more anti-incumbent than it has been since 1994, the anger we witness is multi-dimensional. Certainly, incumbents of all stripes have a lot to lose this year, and Democrats can be targeted as well as Republicans: just ask the endangered Democratic Governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states. But frontrunner challengers in primaries can feel the wrath, too: voters ultimately deep-sixed the bids of candidates whom retiring representatives Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), Joel Hefley (R-CO), Marty Sabo (D-MN), and Major Owens (D-NY) had endorsed (and in some cases hand-picked) to succeed them. When voters go wild, when they want to lash out, they can strike any available target. Since the Republicans control all federal branches, they will suffer most from the electorate's surly mood, but no one is guaranteed an exemption.

Dr. Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, founded the Center for Politics in 1998. David Wasserman is the Crystal Ball's House Editor.

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