In the normal course of events, caring about party primaries for a handful of House and Senate seats when the midterm elections are about six months away seems like a waste of time. But, alas, we have an entire media machine that is designed to consume and devour any bit of political news and then regurgitate some sort of analysis or grand implications from it. And so this week’s big news are Senate primary elections in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, a house race in Pennsylvania and a primary in Arkansas that was inconclusive and will advance to a run-off between the two highest vote getters.
Inasmuch as there is a trend or something important, it’s the vaunted anti-incumbent feeling that’s manifested itself in the New Jersey gubernatorial race and in the Utah Republican party rejecting three term incumbent senator Bob Bennett in a caucus.
In Arkansas, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter got 42.5% of the vote while incumbent Blanche Lincoln got 45.5%, a surprisingly strong showing in a conservative state where Halter has had the strong backing of liberal grassroots activist groups like the AFL-CIO and MoveOn.
In Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter the longtime Republican senator who recently switched parties because he was going to lose a Republican primary to conservative Pat Toomey was defeated by Congressman Joe Sestak, who ran strongly to this left and by pointing out that, for the overwhelming majority of Specter’s career, he has been a (relatively) loyal Republican.
But not every race fit this narrow frame. In Kentucky, there was no incumbent; it was instead grassroots favorite Rand Paul (son of libertarian Republican congressman and many-time presidential candidate Ron Paul) versus the establishment favorite, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Paul, with the support of various Tea Party groups and the key endorsement of Sarah Palin won the primary with 59% of the vote.
One of the elections that stood out was in Pennsylvania’s 12th district. It’s longtime representative, Democrat John Murtha, died in February, and last Tuesday was the special election to replace him. Even though the district itself is fairly conservative — it went for McCain in 2008 – former Murtha staffer Mark Critz beat out conservative Republican Tim Burns. Critz, of course, was the closest thing to an incumbent in a special election and yet still managed to win his purple-to-red district, which casts some doubt on a generalized anti-incumbent swing.
If it is even worth trying to draw conclusions from a handful of primaries which are grouped together because of the vagaries of states’ electoral calendars, one could say that partisan voters want figures who can genuinely claim to represent the grassroots base. It certainly made sense for Sestak and Paul to run away from the center: Pennsylvania and Kentucky are, respectively, solidly liberal and conservative states and their Democratic and Republican parties are even more so. But Bill Halter, who ran to the left of Blanche Lincoln, was doing so in a very conservative state that only through the quirks of Arkansas’s political makeup, still elects relatively conservative Democrats to statewide office.
There may be two different trends at play here. Republicans are in the midst of an uprising in their base, where tea partiers and grass roots supporters are habitually upset with the party establishment in D.C., even as they have been assiduously doing everything they can to obstruct President Obama’s agenda. Similarly, grassroots Democrats are upset that, despite their 59 vote majority in the Senate, there are still a handful of Democratic senators — like Blanche Lincoln — who always seem to be chipping away at progressive legislation. Their displeasure is different than those of their Republican counterparts. Democratic voters in Democratic primary overwhelmingly support Obama’s agenda and want to elect those who they think will be implement it.
What does all this mean for the midterms in November? Well, expect Democrats to lose at the very least 20-25 seats in House. The party in the majority nearly always loses seats come midterms, and unemployment is still high, which can only lead to more miscontent. But if House special elections are indicators of anything, Democrats have been doing well: They’ve won the last six. And the Senate? Expect Democrats to hold on to the Senate, but not by much.
But maybe this is all rather pointless — the primaries, that is. If you support the President and the Democrats’ agenda, the midterm election is going to be disheartening no matter what. The Senate basically requires 60 votes to get anything done, and now more than one of those votes will have to come from a Republican (although none of them will be from Rand Paul). Sure, the House majority will be smaller, but it will mostly be Democrats from conservative districts losing who weren’t going to go in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi anyway. So by all means vote, but just beware that who you’re voting for and whether or not they win might not matter so much.