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The Sound And The Fury

The Sound And The Fury

By Sean Trende - May 20, 2010

It's the duty of pundits, egged on by partisans, to take small elections and make big stories out of them. Thus, the election of Scott Brown became a portent that every Democratic district in America was vulnerable. The defeats of Senator Bennett and Congressman Mollohan demonstrated that generalized anti-incumbent fever was sweeping the nation.

And so yesterday we learned that Tuesday night's results show us (a) that anti-incumbent fever continues unabated (b) Rand Paul proves either , depending on your political affiliation, the strength of the tea party movement or the increasing lunacy of the Republican Party and (c) because of PA-12, "all the evidence" pointing to huge GOP gains in the fall is debunked; control of the House for the Republicans is a mere "mirage."

Tuesday's races were, individually, newsworthy. But ultimately, I don't think we really learned all that much about what November will look like from them. Let's look at each race individually:

Pennsylvania Senate: Obviously it is a big deal whenever a five-term Senator loses. But I think it's a mistake to see this race as too much of a rebuke to the President, or as evidence of anti-incumbent/anti-Washington sentiment.

First the obvious: Congressman Joe Sestak is a Congressman. He's part of Washington DC, if for a shorter period of time than Specter. If pundits are looking for evidence of a generalized anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment, they should look elsewhere.

So why did Specter lose? Sestak, unlike Specter, really is a Democrat. He's not from the far left of the party (relatively speaking) - no one should mistake him for Paul Wellstone or Russ Feingold. But he also didn't swing from being the 63rd most liberal Senator to being the 50th most liberal Senator in eight months of voting, like Specter. He's been consistently voting as a mainstream liberal in this Congress and the last.

Specter is a man without a party - to Republicans he's the guy who killed Robert Bork, to the Democrats he's the guy who beat up Anita Hill. It was a no-win situation for him, and quite frankly he was in real trouble the moment he got a credible primary challenger. Think about it this way: If Evan Bayh switched parties and Mike Pence had primaried him, who do you think would have won? Quite frankly, if the President and Democratic establishment hadn't been firmly behind Specter, he'd have been lucky to receive 40% of the vote.

It makes it difficult to generalize from this election: You'd have to find a party-switching Senator who didn't really fit with either party. It's more evidence that party switchers have short lifespans, but that is about it.

Arkansas Senate: Likewise, it is difficult to generalize from the Arkansas Senate race to November. Senator Blanche Lincoln will go to a June runoff against Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, one which she will probably lose. Halter is not part of the Washington establishment, but he's also not exactly a political outsider, either, having held elective office since 2006 and having been in government since graduating from Stanford and Oxford.

Lincoln's problem is that she is generally well-positioned for a general election in Arkansas, which is a conservative, populist, Democratic state. But that puts her in a bind for the primary, which is always going to favor the ideological extremes in either party.

So what does she do in a year like this one, when an activist Democratic President absolutely needs her vote to get his agenda through the Senate? Does she support the President, which alienates conservative Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, or does she oppose him, and risk alienating the base? It is a really, really tough question. And so, Lincoln . . . dithered. She basically waited until the last possible moment to see if someone else would oppose health care reform, and then voted "yes." In the process she alienated both her left and her right. Her poll numbers plummeted in the general election, and left her vulnerable in the primary to a more reliable Democratic vote.

Of all the races, this probably has the most national implications. But there are only so many moderate Democrats who are being squeezed between the left and right this year.

Kentucky Senate: It's time for tea! Or maybe not. Rand Paul certainly made waves as the most high-profile, successful candidate of the Tea Party insurgency to date. There's no denying that Paul represents a stunning victory for the activist right that would have been unimaginable a year ago (to anyone except for Paul, that is).

But it's easy to overestimate the Tea Party's successes. Chris Dudley in Oregon won his primary election easily over Tea Party candidate Allen Alley. Rob Cornilles won his primary over activist John Kuzmanich. Outside of claiming Senator Bennett's scalp at a state convention filled with the most activist members of the GOP and a few near-upsets in Indiana primaries, the Tea Party doesn't have much to show for its efforts.

In fact, yesterday's results are actually an overall departure from what appeared to be generalized anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, pro-outsider results in the elections from a couple of Tuesdays ago. Paul was the exception, rather than the rule last night; only one House incumbent, scandal-plagued Representative Paul Kanjorski - was held below 65% of the vote, and the establishment challengers were typically winning their primaries handily, with only a couple of exceptions.

PA-12: This is the big Kahuna. I wrote about why I didn't think a Republican loss would be particularly shocking here and here, and Jay Cost has a very nice post mortem here.

I don't want to rehash all of this. But I do want to emphasize why I don't think you can generalize from these results. In almost any other R+1 district in the country, an eight-point loss would be an ominous sign for the GOP. But demographically, this is still a very Democratic district below the Presidential topline numbers. As Swing State Project explained in a first-rate preview of the race:

The 12th, however, is somewhat ancestrally Democratic - this was Joe Hoeffel's 4th best district in 2004, and turned out strong for Bob Casey. If you average the four federal statewide races since 2004 (Kerry v. Bush, Hoeffel v. Specter, Casey v. Santorum, and Obama v. McCain), the district's returned on average a Democratic performance of 51.3% to 46.2%.

In truth, this is probably more of a D+4 or a D+5 district top-to-bottom - if it was really Hoeffel's best district in 2004 that means that it went more heavily Democratic that year than the Seventh (D+3), the Eighth (D+2), the Eleventh (D+4) and the Thirteenth (D+7), all of which send Democrats to Congress today.

After all, these are voters that still really want to pull the lever for a Democrat almost as badly as when they were madly for Adlai. These aren't even Reagan Democrats; they voted for Walter Mondale (Fayette County gave him 62% of the vote!), and for Jimmy Carter (twice). They voted strongly for Bill Clinton (twice), and for Michael Dukakis. They voted strongly for sometimes-southern-accented Al Gore in 2000, and they even did so, albeit narrowly, for a Northeastern, urban liberal like John Kerry in 2004.

They went for John McCain in 2008, but did so by four-tenths of a point, Obama's best showing in a non-urban Appalachian district. In fact, if the Democrats had nominated anyone other than Obama, I believe he or she would have carried this district handily and we wouldn't be having this discussion, even though it would be the exact same voters! And those Democrats who stuck with Obama are pretty hardcore - this is not a district with a lot of "surge" Obama voters who will be hard to turn out in midterm elections; there weren't many blacks, Hispanics, or college kids here.

These Democrats voted for Mark Critz not because he ran as a pseudo-Republican - he didn't - but because he positioned himself beautifully as an old school, Roosevelt Democrat, well to the right of those crazy McGovernites in Washington, but well outside the clutches of those evil, pro-big business Republicans like Burns (who want to put a 23% tax on your food). Put differently, Critz probably won in large part because he was aligned closely with the voting preferences of the district. It will be harder for most other Democrats to do this.

Let's also be clear: It didn't hurt that almost two-thirds of the ballots were probably cast by registered Democrats. The Democrats' problem this cycle has never been among their own. Creigh Deeds won 93% of Virginia Democrats  - a better showing among Democrats than Barack Obama's showing in 2008, incidentally. John Corzine received 89% of the two-party vote among Democrats, the exact same showing as Barack Obama. We don't have exit polls from Massachusetts, but I would imagine that Martha Coakley performed similarly well among Democrats, if pre-election polling is to be believed.

The Democrats' problem has been overwhelmingly among Independents. And those voters don't show up at a closed primary state like Pennsylvania on Primary Day. Indeed, if you read Jay's piece, you'll see that Independent voters probably cast an incredibly small number of ballots in PA-12, along the lines of 10% of the vote. If the Massachusetts, Virginia, or New Jersey electorates had been anywhere near 62% Democratic, 10% Independent, and 28% Republican, Scott Brown, Bob McDonnell, and Chris Christie would have been swamped.

That's what makes it so difficult to generalize from this district. To draw a lesson from it, you'd have to find districts thought to be competitive where registered Democrats are going to cast an outright majority of the ballots on Election Day (even Massachusetts can't claim that!), and where the candidate will credibly be able to run from the national Democratic Party. I can think of a handful, maybe the West Virginia districts, maybe AR-01 and TN-08, maybe OH-06.

When you get to the districts that I *really* think the Republicans' road to forty goes through, places like ND-AL, VA-02, or OH-15, you're faced with an entirely different profile: Republican-leaning voters who voted for Democrats for unique reasons, not because it is their default position. This is the Republicans' key to 2010.

I do think that PA-12 is a good datapoint for Democrats who were worried about a 1938-style 80-seat blowout. That appears less likely after last night. And it's at the least a PR debacle for Republicans, who had talked up their chances in the district, only to lose, big time. But even with that conclusion, we must be careful about extrapolating too much. All of last night's elections were driven by uniquely local circumstances, and it is far from clear that key features from any of them are replicable in November.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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