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A Patternless Primary

Don Rose 24 May 2010 No Comment

Cable-babblers and other great minds have been trying to impose some predictive pattern on the mixed results of last Tuesday’s proctoscopicly analyzed elections. Each is looking for and hoping to be the first one who identifies the final pattern for November.

They are all babbling up the wrong cable. But in this world that is what they must do: Babble on even with nothing to say because they have this sanctified 24-hour news cycle, which must be filled and refilled, even when the filler is hot air.

To be sure, the results of those unconnected elections provided some grist for all mills, Democratic, Republican, conservative, liberal, libertarian and everything in between. But collectively all they really proved, once again, was Tip O’Neill’s adage that all politics is local.

Big news, of course, to see a well-known, multi-term senator such as Pennsylvania Arlen Specter bite the dust. In many ways he did it to himself by openly announcing he switched to the Democratic side to save his own butt because he was going to lose his next Republican primary. But this is a cautionary tale, not a pattern.

Next, take the guy who knocked him over: Congressman and former Admiral Joe Sestak. His was clearly a victory for the independent progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The left-blogging “net roots” can take a bow here, just as they can with the surprisingly strong showing of Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in his challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a moderate’s moderate.

Halter forced Lincoln into a runoff and many dopesters give him a good chance of overtaking her, even though Bill Clinton will be coming in to campaign for Lincoln.

Whatever boost those two give the progressive side, there is still no guarantee that either can win in November, though Sestak may have a stronger shot against the traditional conservative Pat Toomey.

The closest thing to a pattern-making issue occurred in Pennsylvania’s special election to fill the seat of the late Congressman John Murtha. Here the conservative wing of the Democratic Party triumphed when Mark Critz—pro-life, pro-gun, and wary of health care reform—won with a surprising 8-point margin over Tim Burns in a race expected to be close enough for Burns to possibly even win.

If any long-term lesson came out of Tuesday’s festivities it was here, demonstrating that the Republican attempt to “nationalize” the congressional elections in November—running against President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi—may not be the correct strategy. Taking the House by winning 40 seats becomes less and less likely. But still, it is only one seat here and many special circumstances were in play, such as a huge turnout for the Specter-Sestak race.

On the GOP side of course there was the remarkable victory margin in the Kentucky senate primary of ophthalmologist Rand Paul—son of Congressman Ron Paul—who ran rings around the “establishment” candidate endorsed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, former Vice President Dick Cheney and other big names. Paul, essentially a libertarian, ran openly as a Tea Party candidate, which gave that group a terrific boost.

One can say that perhaps the only serious loser, with little comfort, is the Republican establishment. It was unable to claim any special victories and looked especially bad in Kentucky—as it did earlier in the Texas gubernatorial primary, when the establishment’s Kay Bailey Hutchinson went down in flames.

But even the Kentucky loss is unlikely to diminish McConnell’s leadership role in the senate—at least for a while.

Since Rand Paul’s victory he has come under fire for a number of questionable statements—criticizing portions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, seeming to side with BP in the disastrous oil spill, among others—but we’ll deal with those issues at a later point.

What is salient is whether his highly maverick, Tea Party backed race has any significance outside of Kentucky. Does it portend, for example, that former Congressman J. D. Hayworth—a Tea Party wannabe—has a shot at defeating John McCain in Arizona’s senate primary later in the summer?

Doubtful.

But should that happen, the game will certainly change. That’s when loads of incumbents—not just special cases such as Specter—will find themselves seriously threatened.

By the time of the McCain-Hayworth showdown, I’m sure we will see some clearer patterns emerge with hints of what to expect in November. Meanwhile, let us not draw any significant conclusions from Tuesday–or attempt to read any tea leaves.

**

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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