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Primary Elections Stir Political Waters for Midterms

May 19, 2010 at 5:40 PM EST
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Democrats and Republicans voiced anti-incumbent sentiments with their votes during Tuesday's primary elections. Jim Lehrer talks to two political writers about the loss by longtime Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and the high stakes for several more veterans.
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JIM LEHRER: More now from Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, National Journal’s political daily, and Dan Balz, senior political reporter for The Washington Post.

Amy, there are only three Senate races. Does an anti-establishment theme fit very neatly for them?

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Yes, it’s very nice to be able to find something that ties all these together, so we’re going to continue to — to do that.

Now, clearly, these are all unique circumstances. So, they all have their own storyline as well. But what is clear is that having the seal of approval of the establishment, which in years past was the easiest route to getting your party’s nomination, no longer seems to be such a grand thing.

In all of those cases — well, on the Democrats’ side, you had Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter endorsed by a pretty popular guy among Democrats, the president of the United States, Barack Obama. Having his seal of approval was not enough to convince an electorate that’s looking — and I do believe it is — looking for change and looking for something different, but that those folks represented that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that it fits?

DAN BALZ, chief political reporter, The Washington Post: I do agree with that.

I think that — I mean, what we have seen here is outside vs. inside. And anybody who is cast as the insider is at a disadvantage in this environment. This is a time in which voters are unhappy with Washington, and they are registering it in a variety of ways, and sometimes contradictory ways.

But that is clearly the overriding factor that all politicians have got to deal with this year.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s take the three Senate races one at a time. Is it correct to say, then, that — that neither — that Sestak didn’t necessarily win, and Specter didn’t necessarily lose; it was the situation that caused this end result?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think, for starters, with Arlen Specter, you have to factor in that he was a party-switcher. And party-switchers don’t always work well in their new home. Sometimes, the body rejects the transplant.

And I think that part of that is what you saw in Pennsylvania. But, beyond that, you had the question of older vs. new — and that was played hard — and the idea of political expediency. I think the ad that was run against Specter by Joe Sestak may end up in 2010 as the ad of the year.

This was an ad that tied him to George W. Bush, who is obviously still highly unpopular among Democratic base voters, but also quoted Specter himself as saying, when he switched parties, “This will enable me to be reelected.”

And the tag line on the ad was, he changed parties to save one job, his own. And that was a killer ad.

JIM LEHRER: Well, that’s a killer ad, and that’s also anti- — anti-Specter, is it not? I mean, that raised things beyond anti-establishment.

AMY WALTER: Well, and because — I think Dan is exactly right. These Democratic voters had been voting against Arlen Specter for 30-some years.

So, to say that, you know, OK, you have got to trust that this guy’s going to be a real Democrat was going to be a stretch. But I think it’s important to remember, too, that Democrats didn’t dislike Arlen Specter. If you look at the polls coming into this election, he had a pretty good favorable rating among Democratic primary voters.

His problem, I think, goes back to Dan’s point about political expediency. It was less about ideology. It was much more about, wait a minute, this is a guy who is really interested in saving himself, instead of working on our issues.

The other thing is, it’s very tough for an incumbent right now. I can appreciate where they’re sitting right now. They say, years past, you go in and you say, here are all the things I have done in Washington for you. I have brought money home. I have brought earmarks. I have done all these great things. I have seniority. You want to keep that.

That is a message that they have used time and time again. That message right now not resonating, and these incumbents have to find a new way to connect with voters. They — they can’t — they don’t have to necessarily reinvent themselves, but they have to meet voters where they are, instead of trying to pretend that they’re back where they were.

JIM LEHRER: Now, in Kentucky, the — the — Trey Grayson wasn’t a real incumbent, and yet, the incumbent thing hurt him, nevertheless, correct?

DAN BALZ: Well, certainly, the establishment thing hurt him.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAN BALZ: It wasn’t necessarily so much anti-incumbency as…

JIM LEHRER: He was the secretary of state.

DAN BALZ: He was the secretary of state.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAN BALZ: But he wasn’t a Washington incumbent.

But he had the backing of the most prominent politician in the state, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as much of the rest of the establishment. And he celebrated that. I mean, one of his final ads had this panoply of establishment Republican figures. And he said, they’re all behind me.

I think that the Kentucky race was interesting, not simply because Rand Paul won that race, but because of the size of his victory. It was clear by the end of the race that he was going to win. But no one anticipated that he was going to win by around 25 points.

And I think that was a demonstration of the power of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that the Tea Party movement gained its — its legs in a very public way yesterday?

AMY WALTER: Well, I still think I — I’m still unclear about what the Tea Party movement is.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

AMY WALTER: I understand that there is a mood out there, and I think that this is where these outsider candidates, whether they’re on the Democratic or Republican side, have been able to tap into this, this sense that things are broken. Washington needs to be fixed. Time to take those older folks — and I think you’re right that it was a new — a young-vs.-an-old thing as well.

But there was — there’s no — there’s no necessary blueprint for what a Tea Party candidate stands for, what the movement itself, that there’s a leader, that there’s a final point that they’re trying to get to in terms of ideology. I think that what it did represent was this idea that you can sort of harness the energy that’s out there, that’s frustrated.

And that, in a — especially in a primary, is enough to take you over the top. Now, is it going to be enough to take you through a general election? That’s a very different story.

JIM LEHRER: And whether the mainline Republicans will go with Paul against the Democrat.

DAN BALZ: I think that is a question, although they — Mitch McConnell and others are moving very quickly to have a unity gathering on Saturday to show that the party is thoroughly behind him.

But there’s no question there will be some tensions within the party, particularly over some of the things that Rand Paul has advocated as a candidate.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the quick explanation for Arkansas?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think that the base of the Democratic Party was unhappy with Senator Lincoln for health care in particular, because she had jettisoned her support for the public option, which was the Holy Grail on the left in the Democratic Party during the health care debate.

The unions in particular got very energized. She’s not strong on their agenda. And they went after her. And so, you know, she was — she’s in trouble whether she wins this primary or not. I mean, this is going to be a tough race in Arkansas for whoever is the Democratic nominee.

JIM LEHRER: Because the Republican is going to accuse her of being a liberal, no matter what, right?

AMY WALTER: Right, no matter what. Well, this is what…

JIM LEHRER: If she wins.

AMY WALTER: Well, this is what I found fascinating about this race.

She started this race with an ad that said: Sick of politics as usual? I stood up, basically, to all these things that liberals wanted me to do, like I was against the public option.

All right, that’s how she started her campaign in a Democratic primary. She ended it by saying: I was the deciding vote on health care. Hmm.

So, I can see, already, that ad making its way into the Republican mantra. The problem for Republicans — and we talked a lot about insider-outsider Tea Party movement — Arkansas didn’t have the same energy and anti-establishment sort of fervor that they had in Kentucky. They nominated John Boozman, who is a congressman who voted for TARP, all right, the thing that is — has been considered the…

JIM LEHRER: Financial rescue plan.

AMY WALTER: The financial — the rescue plan…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

AMY WALTER: … which really knocked off Senator Bennett in Utah and has been a real weight around the neck of a lot of other incumbents, Democrat or Republican.

JIM LEHRER: Now, just quickly, before we go, the — the special House race — election in Pennsylvania, where the Democrat won, that doesn’t fit any pattern…

DAN BALZ: No, it doesn’t. And it’s just another example that you can’t fit everything neatly under one slogan.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAN BALZ: But I think it was important because it raised questions about whether the Republicans really will take over the House, as many of them have said they will do.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

AMY WALTER: And one more point about it, too, about the inside-outsider thing.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

AMY WALTER: Actually, the Democrat in this case was the insider. He was the congressman who had died Jack Murtha’s ex-aide.

The Republican, on paper, was an outsider, as a businessman, not part of politics. And the Democrat did a very good job of actually turning the tables and making the businessman and his views on issues like outsourcing the issue. The Republicans tried to make Nancy Pelosi the issue. And when it came down to it, the outsourcing won.

JIM LEHRER: Somebody didn’t read the script.

AMY WALTER: Apparently not.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Dan, Amy, thank you both.

DAN BALZ: Thanks, Jim.