A lot of conventional wisdom about the 2010 elections died an ignoble death last night, as voters once again proved that even though the inside-the-Beltway crowd loves to attempt to pigeonhole them one way or another, when the election rolls around the voters have the final say. The breadth of such conventional wisdom's demise is rather staggering in its scope, too. So today, rather than dissecting yesterday's primaries (plenty of time for that in the days to come), I'd like instead to dissect a few themes which proved to be either partially or absolutely wrong last night.
The first of these is that the Tea Party folks are worthy only of ridicule. This is a theme from both the Left and from the mainstream media. The Right, of course, has been split over the Tea Party movement. Republican party insiders were terrified of the Tea Party before last night, and now they are positively quaking in their boots (chief among them, John McCain). But the press on the Right has loved every minute of the Tea Party, almost from before it even sprang into being. What yesterday changed for everyone (except Fox News, of course) is that now the Tea Party will be seriously discussed, and not given short shrift (or worse, ridicule). The Left, in particular, has already started pivoting to "Rand Paul would be better than an ultra-partisan Republican" and has started to say some nice things about (small-L) libertarians. Watch for the inside-the-Beltway folks to wake up to the Tea Party's seriousness very quickly, too. And watch for the elitist sneering derision Washington types have been heaping on the Tea Party to vanish like the morning dew, as well.
But watch for the conventional wisdom to gel too quickly around another red herring -- that Tea Party wins in Republican primaries will mean Tea Party victories in November. Tea Party voters are probably the most enthusiastic of any 2010 voters, to be sure. But some of the Tea Party stances have yet to be tested on the campaign trail. So far, the Tea Party folks have been doing pretty good in Republican primaries, but they have yet to be tried against Democrats in a general election (except for the special election in NY-23, which was so odd a race it doesn't really work to draw many conclusions from). And three-way contests will cloud the picture further. Tea Party candidates have secured three Senate GOP nominations to date, in Florida, Kentucky, and Utah. But in Florida (and possibly in Utah, if the ousted Republican incumbent decides to mount a write-in campaign, which he is reportedly considering), it will be a three-way race -- and who knows what that will mean for the chance of a Democratic upset? This is a lot more possible in Florida than in Utah, I should mention. In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, through gritted teeth no doubt, is likely going to embrace Rand Paul and quash any third-party run. But Rand Paul has a few odd opinions which may lose him more votes in the general election than they gained him in the primary. Paul's primary victory may actually put Kentucky in play for Democrats, which nobody really expected. So chalk "Kentucky's a safe seat for the GOP" up as yet another piece of conventional wisdom that went down in flames last night. The numbers were instructive, as well, although the Left is the only one bothering to point this out right now -- there was a Republican primary in Kentucky last night, and a Democratic primary. Both races had two strong candidates. Paul trounced his opponent. But both Democrats, individually, had more votes cast for them than Paul. This shows a lot of energy on the Democratic side, and will be interesting to keep track of as we get closer to November.
The most-oft repeated conventional wisdom before last night is likely to seldom be heard again: "Republicans are about to sweep the midterms, and will definitely pick up control of the House." Well, um, no. Of course, they may indeed do so, but the aura of inevitability surrounding Republicans was badly tarnished by the only race last night where a Republican faced a Democrat -- a special House election in John Murtha's district (PA-12). This is the only district in the entire country which went for John Kerry, and then John McCain, in the past two presidential elections. It was supposed to be a Republican pickup, with lots of blue-collar disgruntled voters moving much more conservative in recent years. Republicans poured almost one million dollars into the race (one-tenth of what the House Republicans had on hand in their war chest -- a major effort, in other words), because they knew it was so important to their "Republicans are inevitable in 2010" theme. The Democrat won by almost 10 points. That doesn't exactly sound like a "sweep" year for Republicans, since this should have been a relatively easy pickup for them. In actual fact, Democrats are on a real winning streak for these special elections, having won all of them for the past two years, in many different types of district. More on this later, though.
Another piece of Republican Party conventional wisdom which may have fallen is the idea that it's a good campaign plan to run against Nancy Pelosi. In the special election in Pennsylvania, this explicit case was made with some rather ham-handed ads directly attacking Pelosi. This follows another piece of Washington conventional wisdom, which is that whichever party "nationalizes" a midterm election automatically wins. But, as Pennsylvania just proved, sometimes the voters actually consider the candidates and vote for the one they think is better, no matter what is going on nationally.
A big piece of conventional wisdom also likely died last night -- that the president's endorsement is the best possible thing any Democratic candidate can get. Obama endorsed Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln in yesterday's races. The Democratic candidate in PA-12 actually ran against Obama, to a large degree. This continues a losing streak for the White House of endorsing candidates in elections, meaning a lot of Democrats are likely to be very wary of inviting Obama to campaign for them this fall. Of course, Obama's popularity could improve by then, but if it doesn't look for many Democrats to not even bother trying to get a White House endorsement in their campaigns. At this point, it wouldn't surprise me to see Obama announce he's only going to endorse Republicans, since his endorsement so far has proven to be the kiss of death at the polls (OK, that was snarky, I admit).
There's one corollary to the last paragraph, though -- Bill Clinton is still a secret weapon out on the campaign trail. Like him or not, Bubba sure does give a great speech, you've got to admit. And he went into PA-12 very late in the game, and fired up quite a number of Democrats by doing so. Look for Clinton to be much in demand on the campaign trail this year, especially in blue-collar districts.
Yet another bit of conventional wisdom which wasn't all that prominent, but still was utterly refuted last night, is that Big Labor is so weak these days as to be powerless. Labor poured a lot of money and a lot of energy into defeating Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas primary. This was to serve notice to all Democrats -- "don't take Labor for granted." Lincoln has been such a corporate whore and so inimical to Labor's priorities that they decided she'd be a dandy test case to flex their Union muscles upon. Lincoln was key in destroying the public option in the health reform debate, and has actively worked against a few other pet Labor issues, so she was a great target for them -- even though Union membership in Arkansas is virtually non-existent. No matter what happens in the runoff election, Labor has made its point very clearly to Washington Democrats -- they will not accept lip service and corporate-friendly voting patterns from Democrats. Labor may withhold support, or they may actively campaign against sitting Democrats in primaries. Look for Big Labor to get a lot more respect on Capitol Hill in the upcoming months.
The importance of party machinery was another bit of conventional wisdom which fell under the voters' metaphorical axe last night, from both sides of the aisle. Parties are supposed to be the 800-pound gorilla in the political world, not to be crossed by individual officeholders, because their support is so critical in fundraising and other party-machine operations. Both the Democrats and Republicans showed that this is not always the case -- and that sometimes this conventional wisdom can be proven to be spectacularly wrong.
I saved the biggest trope of conventional wisdom for the last, in looking at last night's races, after which I'd like to address a few loose ends now and for the future. Since Barack Obama was elected, the media has trumpeted how the voters supposedly loved "centrism" and "bipartisanship." Nothing could be further from the truth, at least not in primary season. Charlie Crist in Florida was punished for his bipartisan outreach to President Obama. In Utah, the Republicans kicked out their incumbent senator for supposedly being too bipartisan, as well. Arlen Specter was the poster child for bipartisanship, as he jumped parties. And Blanche Lincoln was supposedly a "centrist" Democrat (although, more accurately, she is a "corporatist" Democrat, the media usually used the "centrist" label), and she may be in trouble as well. The moral? So much for bipartisanship and centrism being big draws for voters.
But, looking forward, there are some conventional wisdom traps that some folks are already falling into, in "reading" last night's election and what it all meant. The first of these is kind of unrelated, but bears mentioning -- what you did in (or "during," I should say... ahem) Vietnam still matters. Barack Obama was supposed to be the first "post-Vietnam" politician, and usher in an era where we wouldn't have SwiftBoating to worry about in politics anymore. But the main candidate for the Senate seat in Connecticut which opened up with Chris Dodd's retirement just landed back in the quagmire, so to speak. Or maybe it's just all about the relative truth of what he said and what he didn't say, and only tangentially related to Vietnam. This issue is too new to really foresee what will happen, but I thought I'd mention it in passing here.
The second thing I have already noticed is that last night is being spun as some sort of Lefty or Progressive victory. Well, not really. While I certainly will likely join in the spin-fest myself (since my Friday columns are all about spin), I have to say to Lefties behind the scenes, don't read something into what happened in Pennsylvania and Arkansas that isn't really there. Specter and Sestak are almost identical, ideologically (they vote almost identically, in other words). The guy who won in PA-12 ran against the Democrats' health reform, and against the cap-and-trade idea. He does have some very pro-jobs stances, but he's not some sort of Progressive ideal candidate (he's got to defend his seat in November, remember, although now he'll be able to do so as an incumbent). And Bill Halter in Arkansas isn't any sort of wide-eyed Lefty either, he was just a convenient opponent for Labor to get behind. So while it certainly was a good day for the Left in a generalized kind of way yesterday, it's going to be hard to paint it as a stunning Progressive victory.
Even though I mentioned how voters weren't impressed with "bipartisanship" earlier, I believe it is a false tangent for conventional wisdom to take to assume that voters are embracing partisanship in any big way. Voters from all over the political spectrum likely agree on one thing -- they think Congress is broken. And part of that is hating the hyperpartisanship on display there on a daily basis. To put blame where it belongs, cable television hyping the fights between the parties has likely added to this feeling among voters. Congress, as a whole, polls incredibly low in opinion polls. That hasn't changed in over a year. Democrats and Republicans in Congress also poll very low (although marginally better than "Congress" as a whole) with the public. There's a reason for that. And, while partisanship is the name of the game in the primary elections, we're getting closer and closer to the general election where it doesn't play so well. Just a word of caution, in other words.
And a final word of caution, as well. Because Democrats are feeling pretty good about PA-12 right now, and patting themselves on the back for their winning streak in special House elections. But they'd better enjoy it while they can, because this weekend a special election in Hawai'i is likely to elect a Republican in a very Democratic district. This is due to the fact that there was no primary for this race, and two strong Democratic candidates wound up on the ballot with only one strong Republican. Democrats can console themselves with the knowledge that they'll likely win this seat back in November (when there will be a primary to weed things out), but that's not how the headlines are going to read this weekend.
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Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant