Sometimes in politics, the only pattern is that there is no pattern. Last night’s primaries yielded an amazingly diverse set of conclusions from the insta-pundits, way too much of it focused on inside-the-Beltway considerations. I love Andrea Mitchell, but her report from Philly focused almost entirely on the recriminations between the White House and the campaign of Sen. Arlen Specter over whether or not the President had done enough. To be clear, Obama first appeared on a Pennsylvania ballot in the spring of 2008 and they have been forming their opinion of Specter for 30 years. Ditto about the interpretation of the results in Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary, which were seen as a referendum on Sen. Mitch McConnell, who was not on the ballot, as opposed to an endorsement of Rand Paul, who was on the ballot and won.
If the Kentucky and Pennsylvania Senate primaries showed a bias in favor of those with fewer establishment and Washington ties, Sen. Blanche Lincoln managed to hold on to a win in Arkansas. She did not cross the fifty percent threshold and so there will be a run-off, but what is astounding is that Lincoln ran an old-fashioned incumbent campaign, emphasizing her seniority and record in Washington. I was surprised that didn’t get her chased across the border into Oklahoma.
A couple of points that seemed to go under-reported. Candidates always use their victory speeches on primary night to re-position themselves for the general election. They know they will have a large audience watching, and they pivot from the intra-party fight to the inter-party fight, and move to the center. Not Rand Paul. In his victory speech, he not only thanked the Tea Party movement for their support, he essentially presented himself as the candidate of that movement who, incidentally, is the candidate of the Republican Party. It will be curious to see if that works. Americans are notoriously non-ideological about their politics, and Paul’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway is will advised to run as a problem-solver with no D.C. experience.
Paul also criticized the President because "he went to Copenhagen and appeared with Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez and others, Evo Morales…these petty dictators say that to stop climate change, it is about ending capitalism…the President by attending Copenhagen gives credibility and credence to these folks and he should not go." Now, I confess, I had to go to google to recall whether Evo Morales was the president of Bolivia or Peru. And, my first recollection of President Obama in Copenhagen was not at the uneventful climate change conference but at the International Olympic Committee that denied the Summer Games in 2016 to Chicago. Maybe, just maybe, the good people of the Blue Grass State are more plugged in than I would have imagined, but I think Paul’s speech reflected the Kool-Aid he has been drinking at those Tea Party events. And, I wonder what moderate, suburban voters will make of it. And, I would have thought there were more proximate issues upon which to criticize the President and, in fairness, much of Paul’s speech hit some popular themes.
Another thing that jumped out at me about the Kentucky primaries was the turnout. Only 330,000 people voted in the GOP primary, compared to 440,000 in the Democratic primary. I would not read too much into that: In 2008, 700,000 Kentuckyians voted in the Democratic primary and only 198,000 in the Republican one, yet McCain carried the state handily, beating Barack Obama by 57%-41%.
The other big news of the night came from western Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District which was the only contest to pit a Democrat against a Republican, to fill the term of Cong. Jack Murtha who died earlier in the year. This was one of the few districts in the country, and the only one in Pennsylvania, that voted for John Kerry in 2004 and went red in 2008, back McCain over Obama. In short, insofar as the GOP is hoping to make significant gains based on disapproval of Obama, this was the district in which to do it, but the Democrat, Mark Critz, won easily.
So, what was the verdict yesterday? Arkansas is looking more like it will be tilting to the GOP and Pennsylvania is looking more like it is tilting to the Dems. Kentucky should be a safe GOP seat, but Mr. Paul is a wildcard. Of all yesterday’s political news, the one with the greatest potential to alter the balance of power was the New York Times report on Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had mis-characterized his services in the Marine Reserves, saying in several speeches that he had served "in" Vietnam when, in fact, he only served "during" Vietnam. Kentuckyians may or may not know the president of Bolivia, but Nutmeggers know about Vietnam. The gaffe takes what should have been a safe Democratic seat and puts it in play. Even if Blumenthal’s sky-high approval ratings in the state allow him to minimize the damage, damage has been done and the Democrats will need to spend resources on a state that should have been in the bag.
Michael Sean Winters