Anti-incumbent narrative complicated by Tuesday elections

The results from Tuesday’s much-watched congressional primaries are in. Now the larger question remains: What’s their significance?

Dem. Mark Critz won a perhaps bellwether special election in Penn.

The fall of five-term Sen. Arlen Specter (D) in Pennsylvania marks the end of an era; the rise of ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) in Kentucky lends both power and voice to the ever-emerging Tea Party movement; and the success of Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter — who hung close enough to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a conservative Democrat, to force a run-off contest next month — has drawn cheers from the liberal groups that catalyzed his late ascendancy.

Yet the well-worn theme going into the day’s elections — that a nationwide storm of voter unrest spells mid-term doom for “big government” incumbents, particularly the majority Democrats — was hardly proven. Indeed, two of the three high-profile races featured establishment candidates taking on other establishment candidates — with the liberals coming out on top. If any common message emerged from Tuesday’s results it was this: Republicans, who have been hoping that the public’s discontent will translate into big congressional gains in November, might want to reconsider their strategy come Wednesday.

Specter, for example, was toppled by a more liberal Democrat in the figure of Rep. Joe Sestak, whose late campaign push revolved around ads linking Specter — a Republican from 1965 until he switched parties last year — to George W. Bush. Sestak will now square off against former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, founder of the conservative Club for Growth, in November.

In Arkansas, Halter rode the wave of an enormous ad campaign bankrolled by some of the nation’s most predominant liberal groups, including and a number of labor unions, who have been critical of Lincoln’s opposition to climate change legislation and an idling labor reform bill. And while Halter’s name isn’t well known on a national stage, the lieutenant governor is also no political outsider. As the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky wrote Tuesday, a Halter win “would not represent primary voters manifesting some bestial urge to tear the flesh of the establishment. He’s a member of the establishment.”

The run-off election between Halter and Lincoln is scheduled for June 8.

More evidence that the anti-establishment backlash remains unproven arrived Tuesday in western Pennsylvania, where Democrat Mark Critz, a former aide to the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D), defeated Republican Tim Burns in a special election. The result was a blow to Republicans, who’d viewed Murtha’s seat as low-hanging fruit in a conservative district amidst an unemployment crisis. “If you can’t win a seat that is trending Republican in a year like this, then where is the wave?” former GOP Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) told The New York Times before the outcome of the race was known. “It would be a huge upset not to win this seat.”

Not that there hasn’t been good evidence of a conservative backlash against incumbents in some districts. Sen. Robert Bennett (Utah), for example, a faithful conservative, was unseated in a primary earlier this month by an opponent who attacked him for supporting Bush’s bailout of Wall Street. And Paul’s win in Kentucky came at the expense of Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state who’d won the endorsement of no less an entrenched Republican than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Yet Tuesday’s primary results indicate that there’s more at play than a simple backlash against establishment figures. Another wild card on display Tuesday was the extent of the Obama administration’s willingness to throw its weight behind longtime incumbents. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman noted that Specter, for example, was abandoned by the White House in the lead-up to his defeat Tuesday. Fineman pointed to a report by NBC’s Chuck Todd indicating that the administration, after endorsing Specter, actually preferred Sestak.

The fact that White House political spin doctors would say this to Chuck Todd in time for him to go on the air with it at 5 p.m. Eastern, on a popular political show hosted by Philly native [Chris] Matthews, with the polls open until 8 (!), enraged [Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Robert] Brady. “I guess that’s the White House’s idea of loyalty,” he snapped. “They’re gonna hear from me.”

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) predicted Tuesday that the creation of jobs — if it continues – will, come November, overcome the current attitude of voter discontent against Democratic incumbents who pushed through the party’s economic stimulus bill and an overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

“Americans are pretty smart people,” Hoyer told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday. “If they see this continued success, I think they’re going to say, ‘Well, I was doubtful, but it seems to be working, and we will stay the path.’”

Whether he’s right or not remains to be seen. But Tuesday’s results are no indication one way or the other.

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