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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Incumbency and Tomorrow’s Primaries

The many engines of the MSM are gearing up to interpret tomorrow’s Senate primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas, and if the results in these three states go a certain way (Specter loses, Paul wins, Lincoln loses or gets thrown into a runoff), we will hear a full-throated roar of “ANTI-INCUMBENCY!”, which is already the preferred meme for understanding the 2010 cycle. The subtext is usually that white independent voters–whether Tea Partiers or “centrists” or “populists”–are driving this phenomenon.
It’s understandable that writers pressed for time and space will always try to force elections in widely disparate locations into a single mold, and furthermore, U.S. Senate elections are usually to some extent “nationalized,” and may be so more than is usual this year.
But the dynamics of these races aren’t quite that simple. Yes, the 80-year-old Arlen Specter does seem to be sort of the ultimate symbol of what many consider the corrupt bipartisan status quo in Washington, and he is benefitting from support from the Obama administration, the Rendell organization, and labor. But Specter’s party-switching actually separates him from the Washington crowd, and is a major problem for him in a Democratic primary where many participants have been voting against him since they turned 18. Moreover, on the margins Sestak will benefit from an “electability” factor, since recent polls have shown him doing better than the incumbent against Republican Pat Toomey. And then there’s geography: Specter’s base has always been in Philadelphia, and regional turnout–particularly in Western PA, where Sestak’s running very well, and in Philly, where Specter’s benefitting from overwhelming African-American support–will matter a lot.
In Kentucky, there is no incumbent running in the Republican primary, and in fact, the actual incumbent, Jim Bunning, has endorsed everybody’s favorite “insurgent,” Rand Paul. So instead we are told the race is a referendum on someone not running, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is strongly backing Trey Grayson. Perhaps that is what’s on the mind of Kentucky’s GOP voters (and we are talking about GOP voters, since KY has a closed primary), but Paul’s endorsements from an array of national conservative figures (Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, James Dobson) and Grayson’s recent efforts to attack Paul for opposing pork for Kentucky makes this an ideological as well as an “outsider” challenge. On the Democratic side, both major candidates are statewide elected officials, and while national progressives tend to favor Jack Conway, Dan Mondiardo is alleged to have a better grassroots network. So who’s the “incumbent” in that race?
Down in Arkansas, Lincoln is obviously an incumbent under fire from people in both parties, and she, like Specter, is getting help from the president (and a certain former president from Arkansas). And yes, unions in particular are seeking to punish her for flip-flopping on the Employee Free Choice Act, and for a less than constructive posture on a variety of other issues, including heatlh reform. But Bill Halter’s campaign against her was really generated by her terrible early poll numbers against every imaginable Republican. And the outcome will likely be determined not by angry white independents ready to eject incumbents, but by a battle over African-American Democratic base voters, who are tilting towards Halter but with an unusually high number of undecideds (hence the Obama-Clinton involvement).
So it’s not really some simple referendum on incumbents, and independents aren’t a factor at all in Kentucky and may not be crucial in Arkansas, either. Maybe Specter and/or Lincoln will win and screw up the preferred narrative anyway. But if not, let’s look a bit more deeply at what it all means.

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