In the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary and special elections, the convention wisdom coalesced around the notion that incumbent defeats would be proof of an anti-incumbent mood in the country. According to this reasoning, the anti-incumbent attacks would harm both parties but pose a greater danger to the Democrats because they currently hold the majority. It is easy to look at the surface of Arlen Specter’s defeat in the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary, Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Republican Primary, and Blanche Lincoln’s forced run-off in the Arkansas Democratic Primary as evidence of just such an anti-incumbent mood. A closer look at these and other races should cause us to question this line of conventional wisdom.
In Pennsylvania, 5 term Senator Arlen Specter was defeated by 2 term Congressman Joe Sestak for the Democratic nomination for United States Senate. Specter notoriously enjoyed a 30 point lead over Joe Sestak a year before the primary only to lose by nearly 8 points. Many were quick to highlight the Democratic Party’s endorsement of Specter, his longtime incumbent status, and his moderate stances in exclaiming his defeat as emblematic of a year dangerous to the establishment, incumbency, and moderates. Yet, Specter’s defeat by Sestak is more readily explained by Pennsylvania Democratic voters rejecting a Democrat-cum-lately. Specter served all but one year of his 5 terms in the United States Senate as a Republican. Rather than run as an anti-incumbent, or anti-establishment, retired US Navy Admiral and 2 term Congressman Joe Sestak painted Specter as Republican, embraced by (and embracing of) the Bush Administration. You might point to the seeming rise of an anti-incumbent sentiment and Sestak’s closing a 30 point gap as cause and effect—but a likelier cause is that Sestak was little known state-wide a year ago and Specter, having served 5 terms as a Senator, had incredible name recognition.
Also in Pennsylvania, the special election for CD-12—to fill the late John Murtha’s seat—was a clear example of the establishment candidate pitted against the anti-establishment candidate. Mark Critz, John Murtha’s District Manager and a close aide, ran explicitly as the candidate to carry-on Murtha’s legacy, he worked for Murtha for 22 years, and he was endorsed by John Murtha’s widow. Critz ran as if he were an incumbent and struck a blow for the establishment by defeating Tim Burns by almost 8 points.
In Arkansas, Senator Blanche Lincoln has been forced into a run-off by Lt. Governor Bill Halter. Lincoln, a 2 term Senator, actually won the primary but failed to meet the 50% of the vote threshold to avoid a run-off. Lincoln won 45% of the vote despite having approval ratings hovering in the high-20s/low-30s. Moreover, Halter, though having spent a long-time outside of the state is not an anti-incumbent populist. Halter worked for the Clinton administration, is the current Lt. Governor, and receives a tremendous amount of support from unions—not a particularly popular stripe of organization in Arkansas. Halter’s having forced Lincoln into a run-off may represent a victory for “party activists” but, given the general dissatisfaction with Lincoln in the state of Arkansas, it can just as easily be explained as folks voting against a Senator they regard as below average.
Finally, in what was perhaps the clearest anti-establishment victory of the night, the Republican Primary in Kentucky says nothing about Democrats or even politics writ-large in the United States. It may serve as a warning to the Republican Party that the fissures between the core of the Party and the populist wing are quite deep—something that Bennett’s earlier defeat in Utah would seem to bear out. Or, it may indicate that Republican voters in Kentucky viewed the Party’s candidate as too close to the much maligned and retiring Jim Bunning—famous for becoming a deficit hawk only when it caused millions of Americans to lose unemployment insurance, and then complaining about missing a basketball game while doing so.
Is there an anti-incumbency mood in the nation? Well, there is no question that people are dissatisfied with Congressional performance. But the American people have been dissatisfied with Congressional performance for a very long time—in fact, the level currently is substantially the same as it was when the current Congress took over in January 2009. I do not think that Tuesday gave us a clear indication as to whether the American people are in revolt against the establishment. Instead, it appears that broad generalizations did not carry the day despite the nice anti-incumbent narrative the bulk of reporters have subscribed to.