Tavis: So first up tonight, a look at some of the key election results from last night with Chris Cillizza, managing editor of PostPolitics.com for The Washington Post and author of the paper’s very influential political site, The Fix. He joins us tonight from Washington. Chris, good to have you back on the program, sir.
Chris Cillizza: Tavis, thanks for having me back.
Tavis: Is there a theme to what happened last night or are the results too disparate to draw a singular conclusion from?
Cillizza: Well, you know, Tavis, I’m a reporter, so I’m in the business of trying to draw on the bigger conclusions (laughter). I do think, if you look at the breadth of this, we had elections in Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Oregon, so lots of different places, lots of different regions around the country. But the common theme was the frustration with the way in which things are currently being done in Washington.
The biggest example, that being in Pennsylvania where we saw Arlen Specter who has been in the Senate since 1980. He switched parties in 2009 from Republican to Democrat. He loses a reelection bid to a little-known Congressman named Joe Sestak, that sense that Washington isn’t working and Arlen Specter is the face of it.
Down in Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and another Democrat winds up not getting 50 percent of the vote, meaning that three weeks from Tuesday, she’s got to go to a runoff against a guy named Bill Halter, the Lieutenant Governor in the state. Probably not the best dynamic for her, a runoff, the idea being if you’re not already for the incumbent on May 18, why are you for her on June 8?
So right there, you’ve got two Senate incumbents. You add that to Bob Bennett out in Utah who lost a few weeks ago in state convention. You know, you got a trio of Senate incumbents losing in their own party nomination fight, so I think that’s important.
Tavis: But those examples you just offered are examples in that list on the right and the left. That is to say, Republican and Democrat. So is the message here that it’s a bad year to be an incumbent? Is that the message?
Cillizza: You know, Tavis, I’ve been saying for a little while now that I think the worst thing you can have before your name these days is Sen, Gov or Rep. It really doesn’t matter what’s after your name in terms of party affiliation.
It really matters – if you are in office right now, there is a natural suspicion out there. There’s a suspicion always about politicians. The suspicion level is really elevated at the moment. It just feels like people do not trust their institutions.
You know, The Washington Post did a poll with ABC a few weeks ago. Thirty-two percent of people said they wanted to reelect their own member of Congress. Those are levels we haven’t seen since 1994. We all know what happened then. You know, you saw Republicans pick up 50-plus seats in the House, take over the House for the first time four decades.
So I would say volatility is the watch word at the moment. It’s not a Democratic thing; it’s not a Republican thing. It’s a volatile atmosphere with voters not really knowing what they want, but certainly knowing what they don’t want.
Tavis: Does the Tea Party have any more influence? Should we take them more seriously today than we did 48 hours ago?
Cillizza: I think we should. I always say, you know, the political parties make their name for themselves or political movements make their names for themselves by winning. You know, my wife is a coach. You get judged by wins and losses. You don’t get judged by if you came close.
Rand Paul, who more so than any other candidate in the country, really embraced the Tea Party movement, wound up as the nominee in Kentucky on the Republican side. He won convincingly. He won by 20-plus points and the guy he beat – and this is important. The guy he beat is a guy named Trey Grayson. He’s the Secretary of State, but more importantly, he’s the handpicked guy of Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who is from Kentucky.
So Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Senate Republican in Washington, wasn’t able to get his own guy through a Republican primary, and the person who won was a candidate who strongly embraced the Tea Party movement. I think there’s a lesson to be learned there and I do think we have to take them a little bit more seriously because now they’ve got a W in their column.
Tavis: To your point, Chris, is this a referendum, the Rand victory last night? Is this a referendum on Mitch McConnell?
Cillizza: You know, I think Mitch McConnell has built a well-deserved reputation over the last decade or two in Kentucky as the godfather of Republican politics there. His candidates have sort of run for governor, been governor. He is the guy who, if he lays his hand on you and says you’re going to be the guy or you’re gonna be the gal, it’s usually the case.
I think what we saw here was not just sort of the overall national resistance toward the establishment telling the grassroots what to do. But state specific a little bit, I think people have grown sick of McConnell’s heavy hand. McConnell helped push Jim Bunning, his Republican colleague, out of the race. That’s why we have this open seat race to begin with.
So I think people were a little bit upset with that, combined with kind of the over-arching national talk about we can’t trust the establishment, I think combined to make this not a very good day for Mitch McConnell.
Tavis: We know President Obama did not go to Pennsylvania in the latter days to campaign for Arlen Specter, but he and the vice president very publicly endorsed, not just endorsed, embraced Arlen Specter when he switched from Republican to Democrat.
So this makes now two or three, in fact, high profile Senate races where the president’s pick was roundly defeated. Of course, they lost the Ted Kennedy seat. Martha Coakley lost that race to Scott Brown. Specter switches parties, but loses the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania. Is this in any way a referendum on the president’s coattails or lack thereof?
Cillizza: I don’t know if it’s a referendum, Tavis, but I will say it should be a lesson to any incumbent who’s running with the president’s support, which is this. President Obama remains personally quite popular. His policies are a little less popular, but his popularity does not transfer over to an Arlen Specter, a Martha Coakley.
I think voters – again, this gets back to what we’ve been talking about, that suspicion sense that Washington’s broken. They don’t want even somebody they like, like Barack Obama, telling them who they should vote for.
In Colorado in August, you’ve got Michael Bennett. He was appointed to the job when Ken Salazar who was a Senator got named Interior Secretary. He’s been running very strongly as the guy President Obama wants in the race. Obama has endorsed him, gone out there and raised money for him. I would assume that the Specter race gives him pause.
I think what it is is do not depend on the president to get you over the line. Do not depend on the fundraising, on the turnout operation, the president’s own popularity, because it’s not going to work. Not in this election cycle.
Tavis: What does it mean then that, if you’re a Democrat while the president is personally popular, he can’t help you? What does that mean for the White House in terms of getting their policies through?
Cillizza: Well, what it may mean – and this is dangerous for Democrats. What it may mean is it’s every man and woman for themselves.
Cillizza: You know, every member of Congress and every Senator kind of runs their own race with their own message because they don’t want to necessarily have dictated from the White House what that message should be. I think what the White House hopes is that they are able to say, look, you’re not going to be able to run away from Barack Obama. He is going to be a factor in your race.
The best thing to do is say, look, with President Obama, I’ve been building, making changes, trying to turn this country around. But don’t rely on the president to win you the race. You can have the president help you. Use the popularity that he has. That may get you an ear into some of these voters, but he isn’t going to close the deal. Your name is on the ballot, not Barack Obama’s name. You know, Barack Obama’s name is not going to be on the ballot here in 2010.
So I think, Tavis, that’s the message. You guys are gonna have to fight it out on your own. But that said, they don’t it to become hand-to-hand combat, every man for himself, so it’s a really delicate line.
Tavis: So here’s the exit question. Are there any, to your mind, telltale signs for what’s going to happen come November?
Cillizza: I wish I could see into the future better. It would make my life a lot easier, less stressful (Laughter)
Tavis: But a lot less fun though.
Cillizza: Well, it’s interesting maybe. Good point. I do think we are looking at – again, I keep coming back to this watch word of volatility. I think you’re looking at a volatile electorate and that means there’s a lot of different outcomes.
My guess would be, if you look at historical patterns, I do think Republicans are positioned. They’re going to pick up some seats in the House. They’re going to pick up some seats in the Senate. What I’m interested in is how many Republicans incumbents just wind up losing? For this anti incumbent, they don’t grasp the idea that you can’t run from Washington. You have to run on sort of what you’re going to do, not what you’ve done.
There’s plenty of people – this applies to Democrats and Republicans in Congress – who don’t get that, who have that sense of entitlement. Well, I’m a member of Congress. People love me. That’s not the case any more and they need to wise up and start acting like and running campaigns like they were a challenger way back when.
So I think we may wind up seeing some people we never would have expected to lose. Republican and Democrat may be coming up short because they didn’t listen to the message that Arlen Specter’s loss, Bob Bennett’s loss and even Martha Coakley’s loss is sending us.
Tavis: From The Washington Post, Chris Cillizza with insights as to what happened and how we should read what will happen later this year as a result of last night. Chris, good to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Cillizza: Tavis, thanks for having me.