The message of the May 18th primaries is that it is open season on incumbents. In Pennsylvania, Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa) lost decisively to Congressman Joe Sestak (D-Pa)in his primary contest while Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) limped into the runoff in the Democratic primary by 44-42 over Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. There can be little doubt that Lincoln will lose the runoff having scored so far under 50% of the vote. The fact is that 56% of the Democrats in Arkansas decided to vote against Lincoln.
Both Specter and Lincoln are now reaping the harvest of their votes for health care, a fate soon to be shared by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.), Michael Bennet (D Col.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). And the liability of incumbency was also vividly on display a week ago when long time Democratic incumbent Congressman Alan Mollohan (D-W Va.) was upended in his primary contest.
Lest the Democrats take comfort in their new standard bearers in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, it is obvious that Sestak and Halter will be easier to defeat than their far better known incumbent rivals would have been. The new Senator from Pennsylvania will be Republican nominee Pat Toomey and from Arkansas it will be Congressman John Boozman (R-Ark.).
With the defeat of Specter, the likely demise of Lincoln, and the recent loss of Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the new Senate class of 2011 will have at least 14 new members…with more to come.
Democrats are taking satisfaction from their victory in Pennsylvania 12 where they held onto the seat of deceased Congressman John Murtha. But the obvious reason for their success is that Democratic turnout was boosted by a ferocious statewide Senate primary which drew out 1,050,000 voters while the Republican contest — never seriously contested 00 brought a paltry 800,000 to the polls. With no statewide reason to vote, local PA-12 Republicans stayed home while their Democratic neighbors flocked to the polls to vote against Specter (a joy not to be missed).
The Democratic victory in PA-12 also underscores a more fundamental point which is that incumbency is a huge liability in 2010. It is simply better to come from nowhere to run this year than to seek to keep a seat in this totally discredited Congress.
Rand Paul´s success in Kentucky in toppling establishment Senate candidate Trey Grayson in the Republican primary — along with the Bennett defeat in Utah — shows that this anti-politician sentiment cuts across party lines.
The harsh verdict on incumbents stems not so much from party preferences as from revulsion at the legislative process itself. The by-product of violating Bismark´s maxim that the public should never see sausage being made or a law being passed is that those who do the latter in full public view are doomed to end their legislative careers in defeat. The unseemly bargaining, machinations, and overt buying and selling of votes that characterized the health care debate of 2009-2010 has left so sour a taste in voter mouths that they understandably dismiss those incumbents from office whenever they can.
The fact that President Obama let the Congress write the two thousand page bill in public and that Reid and Pelosi negotiated for votes in front of the media, has amplified voter anger at Congress. Watching the deals being hatched and votes switching proved too much for the electorate to stomach. Now it is expressing its discontent with the legislative shenanigans it has had to watch.
This year is not just an anti-Democrat year. It is an anti-incumbent year.