By almost any intelligent analysis of Tuesday’s spate of primaries and special elections for Congress and the Senate, voters have shown that they’re disgusted with the status quo in Washington. And since Democrats have been the ruling party on Capitol Hill since making huge gains in 2006, a rejection of the establishment is an indication of their unpopularity.
At least, that’s the takeaway most folks would carry with them from the returns in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. But there’s another narrative out there.
“Republicans Crushed in the Most Important Race of the Night,” read the headline of a release from the Democratic National Committee.
The release was talking about PA-12, where the legacy of deceased Democrat Congressman John Murtha will be carried on – at least until November – by former Murtha aide Mark Critz, who drummed conservative GOP businessman Tim Burns 53-45.
According to the DNC, that special election in a 2-to-1 Democrat district which had narrowly voted for John McCain in 2008 was “not only a must-win for Republicans, but it was a seat that GOP officials both nationally and in the state EXPECTED to win.”
The Daily Caller reports that DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse, in a separate e-mail, said “this GOP loss — in this environment — raises REAL questions about the Republican Party’s ability to take back in the House in November.”
Certainly the Critz victory in PA-12 – a district trained by Murtha to believe that protectionism, pork and class warfare are the economic keys to prosperity – is a sobering and disappointing development for an otherwise ascendant GOP. Polls prior to last night’s election returns indicated a close race with Burns holding a lead of a point or two, and with the party spending a million dollars to help him win – a number which calls into serious question whether the suits at RNC headquarters have learned anything about the intelligent use of its resources – the DNC is correct in pointing out the disconnect between expectations and reality.
The Critz-Burns race also points out an undercurrent of concern in some Republican circles; namely that the momentum the party has been taking for granted over the past several months might be slowing down. Prior to a surprising swoon in today’s numbers, the President’s approval rating had been creeping back up into the non-threatening range. And the Real Clear Politics average of Congressional party preference still favors the Democrats by a 0.3 percent margin.
But is the PA-12 result really a trouble sign for Republicans? Or is it an outlier? After all, the circumstances of the race certainly favored Critz. The Republican primaries – in which Pat Toomey was coronated in an almost non-contested Senate nomination and Jim Corbett won an easy victory for the gubernatorial nomination – were snoozers. The Democrat primaries, on the other hand, were big news; Joe Sestak buried Arlen Specter in the most-publicized race of the night in the Dem Senate primary, and a huge, contested gubernatorial field resulted in Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato capturing the Democrat nomination with only 45 percent. While POLITICO.com cast the Critz-Burns race as a level playing field upon which the GOP’s performance was a “special failure,” that’s arguable at best. It should be noted that PA-12 was a special election; Critz and Burns will do it all over again in November when the ballot will also include the Sestak-Toomey Senate race and the Corbett-Onorato race for Governor. And it should also be noted that in a strange and somewhat confusing occurrence, Critz was unopposed in last night’s Democrat primary for the November election, while Burns was in a contested primary with Bill Russell on the Republican side – hardly a level playing field when Burns was forced to combat a challenger in his own party at the same time as dealing with Critz.
That’s why Pete Sessions, the Texas Congressman who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, sounded a determined note while refusing to sugar-coat the loss.
“Tonight’s result was undoubtedly disappointing, but we will take the lessons learned from this campaign and move forward in preparation for November,” he said. “This hard-fought race gave us an early preview of what Democrats will attempt to do in the fall in order to survive. They will steer clear of publicly campaigning with President Obama and Speaker Pelosi, distance themselves from the Democratic agenda, and attempt to co-opt Republican positions on the issues.”
Session’s characterization of the race comes from Critz’ casting himself as pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Pelosi and even (sort of) anti-Obamacare. The Critz campaign slammed Burns with a series of brutal attack ads, successfully defining his agnostic position on the Fair Tax as in favor of a “23 percent tax increase” in ads which were pulled off the air by some local TV stations as false. That campaign, and the difference in turnout based on the relative activity between Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania as a whole, helped Critz offset some rather terrible numbers for Obama and Pelosi in the district – by a 55-35 count Obama is unpopular, Obamacare is a loser by a 58-30 count and Pelosi is despised on a 63-23 basis there.
Heartened by the results in PA-12, the Democrats might well seek to expand the model all over the country. Support for the Fair Tax by GOP candidates is going to become a political albatross, ironically at the same time Democrats are quietly floating the idea of a VAT.
Results outside of Murthaland indicate the GOP surge is still very much a viable possibility. While the conventional media wisdom surrounding Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky holds that Paul is less electable given his unconventional Tea Party orientation, and Paul’s victory is being sold as an indication that the Republicans “blew it” by not going with the safe-but-boring Trey Grayson, the Democrat electorate in all three primaries last night did the exact same thing. Sestak in Pennsylvania is a hard-left candidate whose stances on Card Check, Obamacare, bailouts and the 2009 stimulus bill are in lockstep with Pelosi; his race against Toomey will provide a real referendum on the president’s policies. In Kentucky, where the Democrat nominee Jack Conway is a much more “progressive” candidate than the centrist Sammy Mongiardo (who nearly beat Jim Bunning for the Senate in 2004), a similar uncomplicated choice awaits voters in the fall. And in Arkansas, lefty Lt. Gov. Bill Halter forced centrist incumbent Blanche Lincoln into a runoff in which Lincoln’s prospects look dim, while conservative GOP nominee John Boozman avoided a runoff and will be rested and funded for November. A narrative of “The Democrats Blew It” by nominating far-left candidates could take shape just as easily as the one being crafted around Paul.
Of course, all this is inconclusive as yet. And events between now and November will shape these races more than what has already occurred. Jimmy Carter didn’t collapse against Ronald Reagan until October 1980. The GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 would have been a complete surprise at this point in that cycle. But while the Scott Brown shocker in Massachusetts gave the Democrats a heads-up that rough seas were ahead, the Critz-Burns results in PA-12 may have provided the same for the GOP last night.