May 19, 2010

Incumbency sir, is a crime...

...or so it would seem.  Last night there were a number of interesting developments in primaries and an important special election. From Kentucky to Arkansas to Pennsylvania, results seemed to be be tailor-made to the Democrat, and soon to be mainstream media talking points about the mood of the country being anti-incumbency rather than anti-Democrat or anti-Obama.  The talking points will eventually transition from that to the fact that the Tea Party is losing steam.  But that's not what's really happening.
In Arkansas, incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln did not win her primary by enough of a margin to avoid a runoff election. She received a reported 44% of the vote compared to challenger Halter's 42%.  That's not a clear cut mandate and the result will be a June 8th run-off primary.  Halter it should be noted was backed by the far left;
Lincoln, a centrist, faced a late-starting but highly energized opposition in the form of Halter, who was backed by liberal netroots and labor unions angry with Lincoln's opposition to the public option in the health care bill as well as a record they described as flirting with Republicanism.
 That's not exactly anti-incumbency as much as it is polarization of the electorate, a meme that also seems to be gaining some traction in the mainstream media. In other words the far left is upset with 'centrist' Democrats like Lincoln, and is seeking to unseat them in favor of more liberal candidates like Halter.  That could also be said for the Sestak versus Specter race.

Turncoat Arlen Specter who couldn't win on the right so he turned left and joined the Democrats in the most self-serving political move of the last year.  But it turns out Specter couldn't win on the right either.  In part no doubt because it's pretty tough to trust a turncoat, but also because he just wasn't liberal enough for the energize segment of the left who took advantage of a low turnout in Pennsylvania to bring down a Senator that apparently nobody has use for any more.
Let's be clear about this: Bill Halter and Joe Sestak, in broad terms, represent challenges from the left, and their success is fueled by the energy and intensity of liberal activists.
There's a meme bubbling that this isn't really true -- that it's not because of any genuine liberal challenge to the Dem establishment that Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln are suddenly at risk. For instance, in his generally excellent column today, E.J. Dionne hints at this: "While Sestak does enjoy some support from progressive online groups, it's impossible to cast the race as a left-vs.-center showdown, especially since Sestak supported Obama's surge in Afghanistan while Specter, trying to curry favor on the Democratic left, opposed it." Other commentators have suggested this in various ways, too, arguing that if Lincoln and Specter are in trouble, it's because of generalized anti-incumbent fervor.
That's true, but it's only part of the story....
But there's another key point here: Halter and Sestak are mounting generally liberal challenges to their incumbent foes ...
In those two races, the mood is not anti-incumbency, it's about the left pulling further to the left.  Whether this is a reaction to the Tea Party reaction, or a sense of frustration that the national agenda hasn't shifted far enough left of center yet or some other reason is less important than the fact that they seem to believe that this is a winning formula.  In the case of Sestak, they may be right (no pun intended) - he polls better against Republican Toomey than did Specter but he still trails. 

For Republicans it would have been both easier and sweeter to defeat Specter in November, but Toomey is still in solid shape and should still be considered the favorite at this point.  The fact that Sestak is more liberal than Specter should in fact turn out to be a plus for the GOP come November.  The fact that Obama and Rendell backed Specter makes Obama 0 for 4 in the his "You've got me" help tour.  That also helps the GOP, and Toomey in particular. Furthermore, the sudden disappearance of President Obama in the waning days of the Specter fight can been seen as one of two things.  Either Obama has lost confidence in his own ability to turn the tide or else he cut his losses and let Specter wither on his own. Either argument can be made into a talking point for the GOP, again, it helps conservatives, not liberals.

In the case of Halter, Lincoln I suspect will fend off the challenge in the runoff election.  It's not guaranteed but  I think she will.  I don't think she will have the support of the White House either.  Either they are too shell shocked from their losses to date or else perhaps they see this as an opportunity to drift further leftward with their slate of candidates and this presents an opportunity to do so - it's a Democratic crisis they don't want to let go to waste.

Next is the case of Rand Paul in Kentucky (continued in Part 2)

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