By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Tuesday's primary results sharpened the emerging anti-incumbent, anti-establishment trend. That included one White House and Democratic establishment-backed incumbent going down (Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter) and another on political life support (Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln). And the atmosphere remains very tough for the incumbent party. But on balance Democrats had a good night on Tuesday and should be pleased with how the results shake out for November.
Here are five reasons why (and, from bloleague Mary Kate Cary, five reasons the GOP should be happy):
1.Mark Critz. In Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, a culturally conservative, blue collar redoubt in the southwestern part of the state, Democrat Mark Critz not only beat GOP-er Tim Burns, but did so by a surprising margin (53-45). This race was widely seen as a bellwether. It's the only district in the country that went for John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008 (umm, maybe that makes it an anti-bellwether?). It trends very, very slightly Republican. It is, in short, the type of district that Republicans must win if they want to retake the House, and it's the kind of district they should win if we're looking at a political tsunami year. Burns ran a nationalized race, the kind suited to catching a wave. Critz ran a locally focused race--away from Obama no less--of the variety that wins in a district-by-district election. Republicans will argue that the fact that Critz had to run as a conservative (prolife, progun, against Obamacare, against cap and trade) is a good sign for them, but that's the first kind of Democrat who goes under in a wave year. If nothing else this race sets back the media narrative of a GOP wave building to a Speaker John Boehner.
2. Joe Sestak. Pennsylvania's Democratic senate primary was the day's top billed race because it featured not only the media's highlighted theme (insurgent v. establishment/incumbent) but it had the added bonus of a certified political character in "Snarlin'" Arlen Specter fighting for his political life after last spring's party switch. The establishment took a hit, but that's not a bad thing for Democrats here. The party had no choice but to line up behind the GOP turncoat--that was part of the deal for his becoming the elusive 60th Senate vote. But while Specter had a well deserved reputation as a pol against whom one should not bet, he cut precisely the wrong profile in this political atmosphere: a long time incumbent who switched parties for nakedly political reasons. As 538's Nate Silver has argued, Sestak was simply a stronger general election candidate. He fits the atmosphere better, and he can generate actual enthusiasm among Democratic voters. Democrats are better off with him. The GOP has already unveiled its initial line of attack against Sestak as being "too liberal" (is Arthur Finkelstein back?), but their nominee--former Rep. Pat Toomey--is open to criticism as being so radical that even George W. Bush thought he was too conservative. [See who contributes to Sestak]
3. Rand Paul. The son of Tea Party godfather Ron Paul easily brushed aside Trey Grayson, the candidate hand picked by Mitch McConnell, who in this case represented both the local and national Republican establishments. Paul is at this point the closest thing there is to an official Tea Party nominee--which isn't necessarily a good thing for the Republicans. A survey by Public Policy Polling found that an astounding 43 percent of Grayson voters said that they would affirmatively not support Paul in the general election. And there's a reason national Republicans didn't want Paul: They know that winning statewide candidates have the capacity to tack back to the middle to appeal to swing voters, something Paul shows little interest in doing. Fine. Let him call for the abolition of the Department of Education and let Democratic nominee Jack Conway remind voters of the $1 billion (that's with a 'b') the state got in education funds under the stimulus plan.
4. The shrinking enthusiasm gap. The most striking stat I've seen about Tuesday's primaries: Turnout in the Kentucky Democratic primary was 48 percent higher than in the much more closely watched GOP primary. To put it another way, the second place Democrat got more votes on Tuesday than did Rand Paul. It's true that Democrats have a registration advantage in Kentucky and that their race was more competitive at the end, but given the enthusiasm gap horror stories we've been hearing, the number is pretty arresting. Throw in a Keystone State Senate candidate Democrats can get genuinely excited about and the fact that significantly more people cast Democratic ballots in the special House election and the enthusiasm picture start to look better for Democrats.
5. The national GOP. Both parties made mistakes, but the Republicans' hurt more. The Democratic establishment lucked out with their Specter loss, but the GOP is stuck with a weaker candidate in Paul than they wanted. The Democrats won the House special in Pennsylvania. And as TPM points out, the establishment Republican candidate came in third in the primary battle to face Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who represents the Louisville, Kentucky area. McConnell can't win the little ones either, apparently.