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.
In November, Paul will face state Attorney General Jack Conway, who beat Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo in a tight race for the Democratic nomination.
Though establishment favorites Specter and Grayson are out, two-term incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas may still be able to pull off a win against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a June 8 run-off for the Democratic Senate nomination. A third candidate, D.C. Morrison, grabbed 13 percent of the votes, blocking either Halter or Lincoln from gaining the majority required to snag the nomination. Halter, who was already well known in Arkansas, has run his campaign to the left of Lincoln, pitching her as too centrist and the enemy of labor, which has strongly supported him. Lincoln, who edged out Halter by 44.3 percent to 42.7 percent, has emphasized her clout among the state's loggers and farmers as the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. [See what organizations donate the most to Lincoln.]
The run-off—which will decide who faces GOP nominee Rep. John Boozman in the fall—could go either way. A major factor is whether each campaign can motivate its voters, and those who voted for Morrison, to make another trip to the polls.
As these two candidates hit the Arkansas campaign trail yet again, they could learn a lesson on good strategy from Democrat Mark Critz's win over GOP-er Tim Burns in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District. The race also bucked the anti-establishment trend; Critz's victory gives hope to both Democrats and those attached to the old guard of Washington.
A longtime aide to the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha—whose southwestern Pennsylvania seat was at stake—Critz could have been written off as just another Washington favorite, yet his locally geared campaign, which focused on job creation and his knowledge of the district, ultimately put him ahead of Burns by an unexpected 8 points. Conversely, according to Pennsylvania political analyst Jon Delano, the Burns campaign tried to capitalize on national discontent with the Democratic Party, running numerous ads linking Critz to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. [See where Pelosi's campaign cash comes from.]
Nobody in the country is eager to side with the establishment these days, but Critz's victory, and perhaps Lincoln's slight edge, could be proof that a connection to Washington isn't necessarily the political death sentence that many had believed it would be.
Still, with their old political bunkers largely torn down by voter discontent nationwide, incumbents and beltway veterans will certainly have to fight the hard fight in the coming months.