Big Trouble on Little Tuesday

The results from yesterday's "Little Tuesday" collection of primaries and special elections around the country are in. They were bad news for many established political figures. But they may nevertheless be good news for Democrats.

After 30 years in the Senate, longtime Republican and recently turned Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) was defeated in the Democratic primary by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA). In what was a big victory for labor groups angry at her opposition to both the public option and the Employee Free Choice Act, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) couldn't get enough votes win her primary outright, and now faces an uphill battle to defeat Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Tea Party candidate Rand Paul, son of libertarian former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), beat Secretary of State Trey Grayson in Kentucky's Republican senatorial primary, even though Grayson had the backing of Senate Minority Leader and senior Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY). And in a much watched special election in Pennsylvania, Democrat Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns handily in the battle to replace deceased Rep. John Murtha (D-PA).

The conventional wisdom is that the results show just how fed up voters are with Washington. It's clearly not a good time to be an incumbent or establishment candidate. With unemployment high and Congress mired in partisan bickering, there's no question  people are frustrated. In victory, both Sestak and Paul billed themselves as outsiders taking on the establishment in the name of the people. "This is what democracy looks like," Sestak told his supporters. "A win for the people, over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C." Paul sounded the same populist theme, saying, "I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We've come to take our government back."

We probably shouldn't read too much into the outcome of a handful of local elections. The success of Sestak, Halter, and Paul represent a defeat for both party establishments. But fights over the direction of the parties may end up benefiting them in the end, even as it seems to weaken them in the short term. Primaries ensure they don't lose touch with their bases, and often—if not always—help them field stronger candidates in general elections. Nor is it clear what these elections say about what will happen the fall midterms. Six months is a long time in politics. Voters may not be so angry in November if the economy continues to add jobs and it becomes clear that the health care bill turns out not to be the socialist takeover people fear. Just four months later, Sen. Scott Brown's (R-MA) upset victory in the special election to fill the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat (D-MA)—supposedly a sign off the Republicans impending return to power—has been all but forgotten.

Even so the results have to cheer Democrats. Most analysts have assumed the Democrats would take a beating in the fall, losing control of the House and possibly the Senate as well. But Critz' decisive victory in the special election to fill Murtha's seat in a conservative district suggests that the predicted Republican tidal wave may not come after all. The results of any one election are not likely be typical—as Greg Sargent points out, Critz actually campaigned against health reform and gun control—but the fact that Republicans were unable to make this election a referendum on Congress or the national Democratic leadership bodes well for the Democrats. And while Paul's victory in Kentucky shows just how strong the Tea Party has become, it's not at all clear a Tea Party candidate can win over swing voters to win the general election, especially given Democratic turnout was 60% higher than Republican turnout in Kentucky's primaries. Sestak meanwhile seems likely to be a stronger general election candidate than Specter, who managed to please no one when he changed parties last year.

Now, for the first time since November, the Democrats have moved ahead of the Republicans in Pollster's average of congressional polls. For that reason Paul Waldman argues that Democrats may hang on to both houses of Congress after all. And the political futures traders at Intrade now give the Republicans just a 40% chance of retaking the House. My guess is that's about right.

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