Five lessons from Tuesday’s primary election results

Primary election results from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas give a snapshot view of the state of the electorate.

Ed Reinke/AP
Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul addresses supporters in Bowling Green after winning the Republican party primary Tuesday.

For Democrats and Republicans – incumbents and establishment candidates alike – the outcome of Tuesday's primary election results could not be clearer: watch out. Recent elections from Massachusetts to Utah had suggested that American voters were in a "throw the bums out" mood. Tuesday added an exclamation mark.

Here are five things to take away from the primaries Tuesday.

It’s an 'anti' mood out there …

That is, anti-incumbent, anti-establishment, anti-Washington. The recession has left in its trail soaring unemployment, plummeting 401(k)s, and a very angry electorate.

In this kind of climate, an impressive congressional pedigree can in some cases be a millstone more than a life preserver. Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, who was elected to the Senate in 1980, lost to upstart Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in Pennsylvania. And sitting Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas was forced into a June 8 runoff by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. At this point, polls show either of them losing to the Republican candidate by a wide margin in the general election.

“Tuesday night gave us a sneak preview of the fall midterm contests,” wrote Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile in the New York Times. “Be prepared for a tidal wave of voter rebellion.”

... and that’s fueling the 'tea party' fire

Voter anger has roiled both poles of the political spectrum (just ask Senators Specter and Lincoln about challenges from the left). But only the right has a movement to give that frustration a political direction – loose though it is. Republicans ignore the 'tea party' at their peril.

“There’s a tea party tidal wave coming,” said Rand Paul, the winner over Kentucky's Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the state Republican primary. “It’s already hit Utah [with the ouster of Sen. Robert Bennett] and it’s coming to Kentucky. The day of reckoning is coming. We cannot elect the same old politicians without getting the same old mess.”

Tea partyers have not yet proven that their influence can turn a general election. But their dogged advocacy of bedrock conservative ideals – small government, less federal spending – has played a sigificant role in reshaping the primary season. Before Tuesday, the tea party helped topple Senator Bennett in Utah and chased centrist Senate candidate Charlie Crist from the Republican Party in Florida.

Tuesday's Kentucky primary, however, was the first clear test of whether the tea party could translate fervor into votes. On Tuesday in Kentucky, the answer was an emphatic "yes."

Endorsements: Who needs 'em?

Quite simply, endorsements are overrated.

Remember Martha Coakley? Massachusetts’ attorney general lost the special election to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat to newcomer Scott Brown in spite of an endorsement from the President Obama. Ditto for Gov. John Corzine in New Jersey and gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia.

In Tuesday's races, President Obama backed Specter in Pennsylvania, as did Gov. Ed Rendell. Meanwhile, the most powerful Republican in Washington, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (a Kentuckian) endorsed Mr. Grayson. Both lost.

In the end, the endorsements might have hurt more than they helped, cementing Specter and Grayson as the establishment candidates.

Stick with the (party) program

In Specter and Lincoln, voters saw candidates who abandoned their core constituencies or beliefs.

Certainly, Specter’s opportunistic-seeming switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party last year was a major liability. Congressman Sestak smartly leveraged the switch with a brilliant ad that showed President George W. Bush praising Specter as “the right man for the United States Senate.”

Even worse were Specter’s own words: “My change in party will enable me to be re-elected." The commercial’s narrator adds: “Arlen Specter changed parties to save one job… his, not yours.”

Lincoln was forced into a runoff because the Democratic base – especially organized labor – felt she betrayed the core principles of her party.

But don’t take any of this too seriously.

Politics moves fast and voters are fickle. Primaries are always overanalyzed by pundits seeking to divine in a handful of races the cosmic shifting of political tumblers.

“As interesting as primaries are, history tells us they have little predictive power,” writes Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, in the New York Times.

In short, a lot could change come November.


Arlen Specter out, Rand Paul advances, Blanche Lincoln fights on

Arkansas primary a crucible for Blanche Lincoln, centrist politics

Tuesday primaries: four crucial questions

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