For God's sake

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Alaska's Gov. Frank Murkowski has been denied renomination in this week's primary. He won only 19 percent of the votes cast for Republican candidates; Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin won 51 percent and John Binkley 30 percent.

Murkowski was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980, 1986, 1992, and 1998; he was elected governor in 2002 by a 56 percent to 41 percent margin over Democrat Fran Ulmer after winning 70 percent of the votes in the Republican primary. To go from 70 percent to 19 percent in four years is a considerable achievement. Murkowski evidently got in trouble with the voters by appointing his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to replace him in the U.S. Senate; she narrowly held the seat in 2004 by a 49 percent to 46 percent margin over then Gov. (and now Democratic governor nominee) Tony Knowles. (Small world: Knowles, after military service in Vietnam, was a Yale classmate of George W. Bush's.) Governor Murkowski also spent considerable time and effort trying to replace the Alaska gubernatorial turbo-prop plane with a jet. Yeah, it takes a while to fly from Juneau to Anchorage or Fairbanks. But that's not the kind of issue that the ordinary voter is going to identify with. Chalk up Murkowski as an example of a politician whose conduct as a senator in faraway Washington was satisfactory to voters who share his partisan beliefs but whose conduct as a governor close to home turned out to be profoundly unsatisfactory. Rightly or wrongly, Alaska voters evidently decided he is a jerk.

This was the most stinging rebuke to an incumbent governor that I remember since the Texas Democratic primary in 1972. Texas governors then served two-year terms, with no term limit. Democrat Preston Smith had been elected governor in 1968 and 1970. In 1972, he faced three serious primary opponents, Uvalde rancher Dolph Briscoe (reputed to be one of the largest landowners in the state), Houston liberal Frances Farenthold and Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes, a wunderkind with great political skills who was hailed as a future president by, I believe, Lyndon Johnson, who died the next year). Here are the results (not available on the Texas secretary of state website, but taken from America Votes). Preston Smith received only 9 percent of the votes--a rebuke even more stinging than that administered this week to Frank Murkowski.

1972 Texas Democratic primary for governor

Dolph Briscoe963,39743.9% Frances Farenthold612,05127.9% Ben Barnes392,35617.9% Preston Smith (inc)190,7098.7% three others34,3901.6% TOTAL VOTES2,192,903 Total votes that year in Republican governor primary: 114,007

Total votes 2006 Democratic governor primary: 508,602

Total votes 2006 Republican governor primary: 655,919

That was a different era in Texas politics, when almost every election result was determined in the Democratic primary-and when there were apparently more conservatives than liberals voting in the Democratic primary. Note that Democratic primary turnout in 2006 was down 77 percent from 1972, while Republican primary turnout in 2006 was up 475 percent. A harbinger of that change was the 1972 general election, in which Democrat Briscoe beat Republican nominee Henry Grover by only a 48 percent to 45 percent margin and Republican John Tower was elected to a third term in the Senate over Democrat Barefoot Sanders by a 53 percent to 44 percent margin. The presidential election may have had something to do with that. Democrat George McGovern (Texas campaign coordinator: Bill Clinton) was beaten by Republican Richard Nixon in the state by a 66 percent to 33 percent margin. McGovern carried only eight of Texas's 254 counties, seven of them in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and one1 in the High Plains (by a 571 to 564 margin). Duval County, the heavily Hispanic county that provided Lyndon Johnson with critical votes in his 87-vote win in the 1948 Democratic primary, voted 86 percent to 14 percent for McGovern.

Texas Democrats did hold on to the governorship in 1974 (the first time a governor was elected to a four-year term) and won it again in 1982 and 1990; they held on to a U.S. Senate seat, thanks to the political prowess of Lloyd Bentsen, in 1976, 1982, and 1988. But now Republicans hold all statewide offices in Texas, including all the seats on the state Supreme Court, and also hold both U.S. Senate seats. Until 2004, they had less than a majority of House seats, thanks to ingenious gerrymanders engineered after the 1990 and 2000 censuses by Democrat Martin Frost. But now, thanks to the equally ingenious gerrymander engineered amid much controversy by Tom DeLay, the House delegation consists of 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Of the Democrats, 3 are white, 3 are black and 5 are Hispanic. George W. Bush carried Texas by a 61 percent to 38 percent margin in 2004, almost as big as Nixon's over McGovern, carrying 236 of 254 counties and 25 of 32 congressional districts.