A bad day to be an incumbent

Today was a bad day to be an incumbent or an “establishment” candidate. The bad news started yesterday, when the New York Times revealed that Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) fabricated his Vietman experience in speeches with voters (in fact, he received multiple deferments). Suddenly an open seat race thought to be safe for the Democrats seemed to be more competitive, although it’s worth noting that polling taken before the misstatements were revealed showed Blumenthal’s numbers had declined to 52%. After the bombshell, Blumenthal’s poll leads tightened further: against three possible GOP opponents, his poll numbers ranged from 48-45% to 53-37%.

Several hours later, 16 year incumbent Mark Souder (R-Indiana) abruptly resigned after admitting he had an affair with a female staffer. We had mentioned before that in the face of tough primary competition (he survived the GOP primary with less than 50% of the vote), he had decided that this would be his last term. The GOP will now have to select a replacement nominee.

Later in the day, primaries proved to be unfriendly to establishment/incumbent candidates, as a third incumbent was defeated tonight, and a fourth incumbent is forced into a runoff amidst a weak primary showing. Below is a recap of the results:

Kentucky

Last year, the Republicans dreaded the prospect of defending the seat of 77 year old incumbent Jim Bunning; in the face of George Bush’s 60-40% victory in Kentucky in 2004, Bunning was re-elected with an anemic 51% of the vote after noting that his Democratic opponent “looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.” Pressure was soon put not only on Senator Bunning, but on potential contributors, and Senator Bunning decided against running for re-election. Thanks to Senator McConnell, Bunning’s colleague and Senate Minority Leader, the GOP establishment had a candidate waiting in the wings: Secretary of State Trey Grayson. There was only one problem: Ron Paul’s son, Dr Rand Paul, wanted to run as well. And as voter discontent against the Democatic Congress steadily increased, Rand Paul slowly but surely started to assemble a coalition of Tea Party activists, Christian conservatives, libertarians who supported Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign, and Sarah Palin. This grassroots juggernaut eventually enabled Dr Paul not only to build a lead in the polls, but he ended up winning by a landslide 59-35% margin, carrying all but about a dozen of Kentucky’s 120 counties. He faces Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who eked out a 44-43% win in the Democratic primary.

Pennsylvania

When Arlen Specter switched parties last year due to his frank admission that “My change in party will allow me to be re-elected”, the Democratic establishment in Washington and Pennsylvania went out of their way to support his 2010 re-election bid. There was only one problem: two term Congressman Joe Sestak was unwilling to step aside. Plus, many rank and file Democrats never warmed up to the Democratic party’s newest member. However, Sestak trailed in the polls until he ran TV footage showing Senator Specter with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. He also brought up Republican votes Senator Specter had cast over the past 30 years. And Senator Specter further compounded his credibility gap by his twice referring to a local Democratic group as the “Allegheny County Republicans.” Though Senator Specter tried to use his seniority and the “electabilityargument” to bolster his chances. those appeals fell flat in an anti incumbent year, and in the end, even President Obama declined to make an 11th hour appearance on Specter’s behalf. Rep Sestak went on to defeat Senator Specter 54-46% and now faces former Congressman Pat Toomey in the general election. Interestingly, Toomey held Specter to a 51-49% victory in the Republican primary, and that was in the face of unified local, state, and national GOP party support for Specter in that race.

Democratic incumbents were a little more fortunate in two compettive districts, as Tim Holden (who angered liberal activists in his 51% McCain district with his votes against healthcare reform and cap and trade) defeated a libeal opponent with 65% of the vote. 26 year incumbent Paul Kanjorski, who was one of a few Democrats in 2008 who actually ran behind Barack Obama in his district, survived his primary against an underfunded opponent with 49% of the vote. He will face the same Republican he narrowly defeated in 2008 with 52% of the vote.

Meanwhile, Republican hopes to pick up an open seat in a blue collar area were dashed when former Murtha Congressional aide Mark Critz ran as a conservative pro life, pro gun, anti healthcare reform Democrat. He defeated his Republican opponent by a 53-45% margin in a historically Democratic district that has been steadily moving towards the Republicans in recent years.

Arkansas

The national anti-establishment mood also affected the Democratic primary in Arkansas, where labor and progressive groups coalesced behind Lt Governor Bill Halter. There was also a third candidate in the race, conservative Democrat D.C. Morrison. Despite 18  years of Congressional seniority (6 years in the House and 12 years in the Senate), Senator Lincoln only barely won her primary 45-43% over Lt Governor Halter, which means that her poltiical fate may be decided in the June 8 Democratic runoff. Republicans had a crowded 5 way primary, but Congressman John Boozman has won with 53% of the vote and thus will be the Republican nominee without the need for a runoff.

Conclusion

Tonight’s returns clearly showed an anti incumbent bias, but Democrats who distance themselves from the national party like Mark Critz did in Pennsylvania can survive. And, ironically, with 39 more states yet to hold primaries (plus the Arkansas/North Carolina runoffs), the Democrats’ best hope for survival may be to support as many anti-establishment newcomers as possible and/or give them freedom to declare their independence from Nancy Pelosi and/or Harry Reid.

John is a political consultant and blogger with JMC Enterprises with expertise in poll sample development and analysis, development of targeted voter files for phone canvassing or mail outs, campaign strategy and demographic consulting, among other things. See his site at WinWithJMC.com for more information.

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