What, if anything, should we conclude from the results of the last major set of elections before the November midterms? The Main Stream Media (MSM) and several blogs have apparently decided to interpret the results through the gender frame (see here and here and here), by highlighting women winning Senate primaries in California and Arkansas, and gubernatorial primaries in California and South Carolina.
I can understand why that frame is being used, but I see no evidence that any of these women won because of their gender. Instead, their victories were driven by the usual suspects: good financial backing, weak opponents, and being on the right side of the issues. But if we are determined to look at the results through the gender prism, then I suggest a big winner – at least in terms of perceptions – is everyone’s favorite Moosemeister Sarah Palin. Alaska’s finest took a gamble by personally campaigning for Tea Party candidate Nikki Haley in South Carolina’s gubernatorial race, and stuck by her when the dirt started to fly. Palin also broke with the Tea Party to back Carly Fiorina in California’s Republican primary – another winner. And Palin’s candidate in the Iowa governor’s Republican primary, Terry Branstad, also won (beating the Tea Party candidate), although that was a less risky bet on her part. Palin’s lone loss was her backing of Cecil Bledsoe for a House seat in Arkansas.
By my unofficial count, Palin has now endorsed or given money to six gubernatorial candidates (including Haley and Rick Perry in Texas), 13 U.S. Senate candidates (including Fiorina and Rand Paul in Kentucky and Rob Portman in Ohio), and 11 U.S. House candidates. Her governors picks have all won, as have several of her most publicized Senate picks. However, her candidate in Pennsylvania’s special election to replace John Murtha lost. We shouldn’t overplay the substantive impact of these endorsements. For now I’m more interested in the media perception they create as Palin continues to flirt with running for the Presidency in 2012. Like her or not, she continues to be a player, despite the predictions that her career was over when she resigned as Alaska’s governor.
But what did the results tell us regarding my two themes: anti-incumbency and the strength of the Tea Party movement? In the most highly publicized (and thus not necessarily representative) sample of races, incumbents challenged from the Right did more poorly than those challenged on the Left. Most notably, netroot progressives are lamenting Bill Halter’s defeat by the more moderate Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. Halter lost a close race despite being ahead in the last polls (but these were Research2000/Daily Kos polls so…) and despite strong financial support and backing from the MoveOn.org, and from labor unions. What is perhaps most interesting in perusing the progressive blogs is their oft-stated claim that Halter had a much better shot at winning the Senate seat against Republican John Boozman in November. Their argument?: Voters want a real choice. At the same time, however, these same progressives insist that Republicans blew it by nominating Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle to take on Harry Reid in Nevada’s Senate race, because the public is likely to shy away from her more ideologically extreme views. This may be true, but the contradiction in political reasoning underlying these claims is a reminder that many of the most popular sites in the blogosphere are not necessarily the place to go for unbiased political analysis.
More generally, when we assess the strength of the anti-incumbency fervor, we need to remember that even in “wave” election years more than 75% of Senators and up to 90% of House incumbents typically still win reelection. The angry mob doesn’t throw everybody out. Note that Lincoln won her race with about 15% turnout – almost half of the 30% that turned out in May. So we shouldn’t read too much into these results in terms of representing general sentiment.
As for the Tea Party, in the high profile races that I focused on two nights ago, the Tea Party candidates – Angle, Nikki Haley, and Trey Gowdy – all did well. Angle received over $500,000 in Tea Party money and despite the netroots claims that she can’t beat Harry Reid, current polling has them in a dead heat. In this environment, I’m not ready to bet against her. Haley, just missed avoiding a runoff for the Republican gubernatorial primary, but she will almost certainly win the nomination in the next round of voting (June 22 I believe). Gowdy finished 12% ahead of the incumbent Republican Inglis in South Carolina’s 4rth district, although they also will have a rematch. If Inglis loses in the runoff, he will be the second House incumbent to lose his seat in this election cycle. And a Tea Party candidate won the vacated Representatives seat in Georgia and will now serve in Congress.
But the Tea Party-backed candidate Chuck DeVore lost in the California Republican Senate primary and they lost down ticket races for the House there as well, so it wasn’t a clean sweep for them either. Keep in mind that the Tea Party influence is likely to be strongest in low-turnout primaries, since more moderates voters tend not to participate in these. So we shouldn’t overreact to the Tea Party’s success. On the other hand, it’s clear that they are more than a “media” creation, despite E.J. Dionne’s claims to the contrary.
On the whole, I don’t see much that happened Tuesday that leads me to believe we saw any shift in electoral dynamics from what I’ve previously described. The Tea Party is a force, but not an overwhelming one; incumbents are vulnerable in this national climate of voter anxiety, but that vulnerability will vary depending on local circumstances, and Sarah Palin is still confounding critics.