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Anti-incumbent mood with a twist

Tuesday's election results show that the GOP isn't going to automatically benefit from voters' anti-Washington sentiment.

May 23, 2010|Doyle McManus

Last week's elections in Pennsylvania proved that Democrats can throw tea parties too.

In conservative western Pennsylvania, the special election to fill the House seat of the late John P. Murtha, a Democratic warhorse who delivered military appropriations to his district for 36 years, was expected to be close. The district's residents are quintessential swing voters: Democrats by heritage and habit but potential Republicans in outlook and temperament. It's the kind of place Republicans need to win if they hope to take back a majority in Congress.

The Republican candidate, businessman Tim Burns, tried to turn the race into a referendum on President Obama, who lost narrowly to John McCain in the district in 2008, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But the Democratic candidate, former Murtha aide Mark Critz, slipped the noose. He ran against Washington too, saying he would have voted against Obama's healthcare bill. Instead of inviting Obama or Pelosi to the district, he imported former President Clinton. On Tuesday, Critz won the seat by a thumping margin of 8 percentage points, 53% to 45%.

In Washington, Democratic leaders — even the ones Critz had implicitly dissed — were delighted. "We are going to maintain our majority," predicted House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "We are going to lose a lot fewer [seats] than people think."

Republicans couldn't hide their distress. A meeting of the House Republican caucus on Wednesday turned into a self-criticism session, with members demanding an explanation of what went wrong. "We've got a lot of work to do," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip.

Critz's recipe won't work everywhere, of course. The accepted wisdom about voters this year is that they are in an anti-incumbent mood, and Critz was not an incumbent. But it showed that Republicans aren't automatic beneficiaries of the country's "throw the bums out" mood.

The outcome in Johnstown provides Democrats with a roadmap for how to hold on to endangered House seats in conservative districts — the seats that gave Pelosi her majority: allow candidates to keep their distance from Obama and other national party leaders, and focus on job creation and other district concerns. If the strategy works, it won't provide Obama or Pelosi much of a mandate for new legislation, but it will preserve the majority they need to get anything done.

Pelosi, no ideologue when it comes to winning elections, told her "Blue Dog" members months ago that she would not insist that they take positions that would endanger their seats. When 35 House Democrats voted against Obama's healthcare bill, they faced no retribution from the speaker. Several of those conservative Democrats, such as Heath Shuler of North Carolina (who recently shared billing at a National Rifle Assn. convention with Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck), now appear more likely to keep their jobs in November.

Pennsylvania's Senate primary election offered another lesson. Democratic voters ignored an Obama endorsement and rejected Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican turned Democrat who acknowledged, all too candidly, that he switched parties last year mainly to save his job. Instead, they gave their Senate nomination to Rep. Joe Sestak, a cantankerous second-term congressman who is the liberal equivalent, temperamentally at least, of a "tea partyer."

The test will come in November, when Pennsylvania voters will choose between two anti-Washington candidates. That's when we'll learn whether the kind of voter dissatisfaction that crystallized in the "tea party" movement tilts strongly to the right or spreads across ideological lines. Pennsylvanians will have a choice between two distinct flavors of tea: the liberal Sestak and a conservative Republican, Pat Toomey.

Primary voters tend to be partisan, of course, but this year's primary voters — Democrats as well as Republicans — seem even more polarized than usual. They aren't much interested in taking advice from party leaders who favor centrist candidates like Specter; they prefer their liberalism (or, for Republicans, their conservatism) in a purer form.

That desire was on display in Arkansas, Kentucky and Utah too.

In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a centrist who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and had the party's blessing, was forced into a runoff by liberal challenger Bill Halter.

Republicans have been choosing sharper-edged conservatives too: from Kentucky, where voters nominated Rand Paul, a libertarian who recently said the Civil Rights Act went too far when it required privately owned restaurants to desegregate, to Utah, where a party convention dumped incumbent Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a thoroughly conventional conservative, largely because he supported then- President George W. Bush's TARP bank rescue plan.

Those primary results on both sides suggest that the next Congress is likely to be even more ideologically divided than it is now.

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