Primaries Show Anti-Incumbent Wave May Be Overblown

The old guard will still have to fight hard in November.


Last week's primary elections reminded incumbents that they aren't safe in 2010. But the lessons for officeholders on the ballot this year go beyond recognizing the anti-incumbent wave that's apparently sweeping the nation. Politicians not only learned to their cost this week that the Washington establishment doesn't have the advantage it once did in primary campaigns, but also that campaigns still matter.

In the most watched race of the day, the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, Rep. Joe Sestak beat incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter 54 percent to 46 percent. But pinning Specter's defeat on an anti-incumbent mood would be too simple, says Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. Consider that on the House side, not a single congressional incumbent in either party lost in the primary, he says, adding, "You can't exactly say that's an uprising against the establishment, can you?" [See which industries are giving money to Sestak's campaign.]

Instead, the turning point of the race, Madonna says, was Sestak's widely circulated ad that featured an aged Specter almost boasting, "My change in parties will enable me to be re-elected." Also effective, says John Lapinski, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, were Sestak's efforts to link Specter to Republicans, especially President George W. Bush who had supported him in his last re-election campaign. Keystone State Democrats—many who had voted against a Republican Specter in the past—simply did not buy his switch. And Sestak's campaign took advantage, warning voters that the incumbent could be a "flight risk" after he earned the nomination. Endorsements by establishment players, like the mayors of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Gov. Ed Rendell, and even President Barack Obama, weren't enough to bolster his weakened image. [See where Specter's campaign money is coming from.]

The low, rainy day turnout—only 24 percent of registered Democrats voted—didn't help either. "If you get really low turnout, you're getting more people that are more extreme partisans," said Lapinski. "And people that are more extreme Democrats are more likely to vote for somebody that they're sure is a Democrat."

Sestak stuck to the same campaign theme for nine months as the true Democrat who would "shake up how business is done in the Capitol"—a strategy that may still prove successful in the general election against former Rep. Pat Toomey, the GOP Senate nominee. Capitalizing on the financial reform debate now in Congress, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seems to be trying to frame the November race as a Main Street vs. Wall Street battle, highlighting Toomey's former career as a derivatives trader.

Another race where Washington endorsements had little value was Kentucky's Republican Senate primary. Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who was backed by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, lost by 23 points to Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. In the past, establishment endorsements, such as those by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and party bigwigs like McConnell, would have generated more donations and more campaign volunteers. In this race, however, the Tea Party movement used its own set of activists and online social media networks to propel Paul, ophthalmologist and son of Rep. Ron Paul, to victory.

Even putting anti-Washington sentiment aside, there's little evidence that endorsements on their own ever make much of a difference, says Penn's Lapinski. Rather it was the resources that came with an endorsement that could give the establishment's pick an edge.

Yet, perhaps starting in 2008 with Obama's primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have provided not only a new source of campaign dollars, but a new way to organize voters independent of political parties. Paul—who has more than 37,000 fans on his Facebook page, compared to Grayson's 5,700—was a prime example of how to use technology to get ahead.