This past Tuesday, a number of states held party primaries or special elections. As usual, pundits and spinmeisters immediately began puffing and pontificating about what it all meant, particularly for the upcoming midterm elections.
The conventional wisdom was that the voters were saying "incumbents are toast." And, of course, the usual gang of idiots is trying to spin the results into a "referendum" on the current administration and a predictor of a massive repudiation of Barack Obama and the Democrats in November.As to the first claim: There's certainly a lot of discontent, some of it quite noisy, with the current state of politics. But when you look a little closer, there are two races, both in Pennsylvania, thatdemonstrate some equally important forces at work.
Possibly the most watched race in the country was the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, which pitted Rep. Joe Sestak against newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter. Specter, after 30 years in the Senate, got whipped like a rented mule by Sestak. So that must have been a repudiation of all incumbents and all things Washingtonian, right?Well, maybe. But Sestak is not exactly a Washington outsider. As a Navy rear admiral, he's been in and out of D.C. jobs several times, including a stint at the White House as director for defense policy on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton. And lest we forget, at the time of the primary, he was already a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most important, though, remember that this was the Democratic primary. Arlen Specter's 2009 defection to the Democratic Party may have briefly created a so-called "veto-proof" majority for Obama and the Democrats, but it was, after all, recent. It certainly wasn't sufficient
to earn the love or loyalty of the Dem rank-and-file in Pennsylvania.
Was Sestak's victory, then, a slap in the face to Obama and to liberals? Well, again - maybe.True, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both campaigned for Specter, most likely because they were obliged to do so after helping persuade him to cross the aisle. Clearly, their endorsements didn't help. But when you look at Sestak's record and his positions, he's actually the slightly more liberal of the two candidates. He's pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-health care reform.
Most important, Sestak, according to recent polls, has already pulled neck-and-neck with Toomey, unlike Specter, who was lagging 7 to 12 points behind (depending on whom you ask).A more interesting result, to my mind, occurred in Pennsylvania's 12th District, where an actual Republican, Tim Burns, took on an actual Democrat, Mark Critz, to fill the seat of veteran congressman John Murtha, who was ineligible to hold the seat because of being, well, dead.
The Republicans poured over a million dollars into the race, in a district where Obama holds only a 35 percent approval rating. They spent most of it running, not against Mark Critz, but against Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Critz, the guy who actually was running, spent his time talking about local concerns and his own positions. And he ate Burns' lunch. Critz, by the way, was Rep. Murtha's chief of staff, so you can't really call him any kind of "outsider" either.Just as they did in New York's 23d District last year, the Republicans tried to "nationalize" a local election by pouring money in, then running against national Democratic leaders instead of their actual opponent. It didn't work in 2009, it didn't work in May 2010, and it won't work in November. Fact is, there just aren't enough people who hate Nancy Pelosi to make that a winning strategy.
On the Democratic side, the president and vice president tried to use their national clout to swing a state election, and that didn't work either.
The first real lesson we can take away from Tuesday's -elections is a golden oldie, most famously expressed by the late Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local." The second is, "You've got to run a good campaign." Get out there, talk to the people and connect with them about the things that affect their daily lives.