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Last Night’s Elections

May 19, 2010

Everybody in the media establishment agrees that last night’s elections were the harbingers of an anti-incumbent deluge in November. From the New York Times: Specter Defeat Signals a Wave Against Incumbents. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post blames Specter’s loss on “an anti-incumbent national environment.” CNN puts it bluntly: Open Season on Incumbents. The Wall Street Journal says the results represent an extension of the year’s anti-incumbent trend. Generally, the media bases this analysis on three races: the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, the Kentucky Republican Senate primary and the Arkansas Democratic primary. Apparently, incumbents across America should begin praying for a miracle now.

Really? Really?? In my view, this analysis is quite overblown. All three of the elections cited had at least some degree of extenuating circumstances that together make the anti-incumbent narrative generally unconvincing.

  • In the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, the supposed establishment candidate was, um, a member of the other party until he cynically switched parties in an effort to avoid a primary challenge. He admitted this on camera. And, in the final days of the campaign, despite promises of support, the establishment essentially abandoned him.
  • In the Kentucky Republican Senate primary, the supposed anti-establishment candidate benefited from the institutional prowess and name recognition supplied by his perennial presidential candidate father.
  • In the Arkansas Democratic Senate primary, nobody actually won and the establishment candidate was forced to strike a difficult balance, fending off primary challenges from both the right and the left and bridging the gap between the national party’s agenda and her state’s more conservative electorate, which voted for the opposite party’s presidential candidate in 2008. Those challenges are more indicative of the difficulties of being a Democratic running a statewide campaign in a conservative state than the difficulties of being an incumbent nationally. Granted, if Lincoln ends up losing this race, that would be a blow against incumbents. But she didn’t lose it last night.

Plus, in the only election that actually resulted in a candidate assuming a position – the PA-12 House race – an establishment candidate, Democrat Mark Critz, won. Critz’s principal qualification was serving as an aide to the previous officeholder John Murtha, one of the cardinal Democratic establishment figures of the past few decades. His victory is a victory for the establishment, though the media doesn’t seem to be paying much attention.

Of course, we pay (or don’t pay) the media to tell us stories, to construct narratives out of the news, so the incentive to explain everything in easy-to-repeat simplifications is understandable, but those simplifications have to be justifiable. Maybe the country really is in an anti-incumbent mood but that assertion can’t be deduced from yesterday’s results. The anti-incumbent narrative isn’t justifiable. The media should stop spouting it.

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