If you are looking for a unified theme out of Tuesday’s round of primaries, good luck. In states holding the biggest votes of the night there were decidedly different storylines and lessons.
The tea party movement had some reason to celebrate, in Nevada particularly, but not in California, where its supporters were trounced. Even the widely accepted political storyline of 2010 – incumbents are in trouble – took a hit in Arkansas, for now anyway.
Reading too much into primary results can be foolhardy. Voters, beyond the most engaged, are usually not fully tuned into the election until later in the season and Tuesday’s turnout numbers bear that out: 30 percent in Nevada, 25 percent in California, 15 percent in Arkansas.
But the results in those three states do send some messages about those individual places for November. And the Patchwork Nation breakdown of the results is revealing.
In Nevada, How Much Change?
The biggest win of the night for the tea party movement came in Nevada where Republican state assemblywoman Sharron Angle won the right to face Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid in November. Even before the vote, strategists argued that if Angle won the nomination Reid might have a better chance at winning reelection. Some believe Angle’s positions, which include a desire to phase out Social Security and eliminate the Department of Education, might be seen as unpalatable to voters there.
Maybe, but look a little closer at Nevada. If there is a state where one could argue for the phasing out of Social Security – political dynamite in most places – it might be the Silver State. There are two counties that hold about 90 percent of the population in the state, the Boom Town counties of Clark and Washoe, and those two places share some key characteristics.
They are younger than most places, with about two-thirds of their population 44 years old or younger. And they are likely very hungry for change. Those counties have been decimated in the housing crunch and the recession with unemployment rates in the 13 percent range and foreclosure rates near or above 10 percent.
Add those things together – youth and an angry electorate – and you could see how the idea of phasing out Social Security might be appealing in Clark and Washoe.
Working against Angle with the young families in those places, however, might be the idea of dumping the Department of Education, which since the Bush administration has become known as a force for education reform. And some polls show Reid leading Angle head-to-head.
‘Nobody Knows Anything’
Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s run-off win in Arkansas seems the most stunning rebuke of the idea that incumbents are in trouble.
The win for the two-term incumbent offers proof of the old saw “nobody knows anything.” Analysts on cable news channels Tuesday were writing her political obituary, but by Wednesday she was a “giant killer.” But again, the numbers inside of her win suggest she has some serious challenges ahead in November.
The five biggest counties in Arkansas are all Boom Towns in Patchwork Nation. On the whole, those places tend to lean right. If you look at the numbers from the May 18 primary and Tuesday’s run-off you see how that plays out in the state.
Lincoln’s vote totals were below those of her Republican challenger Rep. John Boozman in three of those five counties – and in a few even the combined Democratic vote count from Tuesday was below Boozman’s May 18 total.
And remember there was a lot more excitement around the hard-fought Democratic contest than the Republican one, which was an easy win for Boozman.
For Lincoln the challenge for November will be reuniting what surely is a fractured Arkansas Democratic Party and bringing out as much vote as she can in Pulaski County, home of Little Rock.
In California, Dollars, Cents and Votes
There were two big races in California on the Republican side, for governor and senator, and in the both the real story was not the number of votes received, but the number of dollars spent. The two winners outspent their opponents by large amounts.
Securing the Republican senate nomination, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina beat her two opponents handily, including tea partier Chuck Devore, and outspent them more than 2-to-1. And on the way to securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, spent more than $88 million.
So going forward is the lesson that big money trumps the grassroots efforts of the tea party? Some will be touting that analysis. But it’s also possible that the tea party doesn’t have particularly heavy representation in California. That’s something we saw in our analysis of registered tea party members in April.
But the tea party has had an impact on the race. Both Fiorina and Whitman moved right on their positions on abortion and immigration and may have to track back to the center to win in November.
Look at the Patchwork Nation map of California and you’ll see a lot of big city Industrial Metro counties, wealthy Monied Burbs and exurban Boom Towns. Those places tend to be less focused on social issues and more on economics.