A Bad Day for the Obama Agenda

May 18, 2010

The temptation for politicians and political analysts is to draw broad, sweeping conclusions from election results. But most election outcomes defy being reduced to a single cause.

Campaigns are a complicated mix of issues, personalities and impressions. Voters settle on a candidate after using an algorithm that varies from person-to-person, contest-to-contest, and year-to-year. Tuesday's election results reflect an anti-Washington, anti-Obama, anti-establishment feeling among voters, but they also reflect the candidates' individual winning messages.

Take Kentucky's GOP primary, where ophthalmologist and tea party activist Rand Paul won the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning. Dr. Paul's victory was a rejection of the Republican establishment, shrieked observers. He defeated Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who was supported by the state's senior senator, Mitch McConnell. But Dr. Paul won with support from party regulars Cathy Bailey (finance chairman for both George W. Bush and Mr. McConnell), Kentucky State Senate President David Williams, and Mr. Bunning himself.

Dr. Paul's emphasis on fiscal issues trumped Mr. Grayson's emphasis on biography. The sluggish economy, combined with Mr. Obama's budget-busting agenda, sparked a populist reaction that Dr. Paul tapped with attacks on deficits, spending and special interests. He has a challenge: Being magnanimous often comes hard to first-time candidates. But his big, 24-point victory margin—like those of the GOP's Senate standard bearers in Pennsylvania and Arkansas—will make it easier to unite the party.

Pennsylvania's Democratic primary did see a longtime incumbent lose. But here incumbency was less important than lack of principle. The defeat of Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter shows opportunistic politicians are rarely trusted or accepted. Mr. Obama's endorsement in ads and appearances didn't save Sen. Specter.

The GOP would be better off if Mr. Specter had won. The weaknesses that became apparent in the primary would have doomed him in the fall. The race now, pitting former GOP Congressman Pat Toomey against Congressman Joe Sestak, will be among the country's hardest fought races.

Mr. Obama's endorsement similarly failed to carry Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln to a decisive victory. She now faces the state's liberal lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, in a June 8 runoff. Her predicament shows Democrats, especially in border and Southern states, are badly split over the Obama agenda. If Mr. Obama's vaunted political operations couldn't deliver for Mr. Specter and Mrs. Lincoln, what does it say about the fall?

Democrats are increasingly likely to distance themselves from Mr. Obama, either ignoring him or running against him. Which brings us to Pennsylvania's 12th District. Democrats are right to crow about keeping that seat, left vacant by the death of Jack Murtha. Murtha's longtime aide, Mark Critz, won with a message that he was pro-life, pro-gun and anti-ObamaCare, while benefiting from a sympathy vote for Murtha's legacy.

In a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 137,000 voters, 62% to 29%, Mr. Critz also benefited from Gov. Ed Rendell's clever decision to schedule the special election on the same day as party primaries.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says "This is the type of race [the] GOP has to win." He is right, but just how many other Democrats will be running this year as pro-life, pro-gun, anti-ObamaCare, and against cap and trade?

The Democratic theory that voter anger would fade or burn out once health care was passed was wrong-headed and was undermined Tuesday. That anger remains and likely will persist through the November elections.

Republican intensity also continues: The Democratic turnout in Kentucky declined 8% from the last midterm, while GOP turnout rose 27%. In Arkansas, the hot Democratic Senate primary produced a 15% increase in turnout from four years ago—but the GOP turnout more than doubled, up 122%. Even though Pennsylvania Republicans didn't have serious statewide primary fights while the Democrats battled over both Senate and gubernatorial nominations, Republican turnout was up 46% over the last midterm, while Democratic turnout rose 41%.

Conventional wisdom holds that incumbents are in trouble this year. There's some truth to that. But the vast majority of those incumbents are likely to be Democrats. And the only bright moment for Democrats Tuesday came from a candidate who explicitly disavowed Mr. Obama's most significant policy victory and expressed views on social issues that are detested by most national Democrats.

The wave that started last year is continuing to gain velocity, size and force. This week's elections confirmed what the evidence has shown since last summer: Mr. Obama's agenda is a political killer and his endorsement is of little help. If there is a big takeaway from what happened on Tuesday, that is it.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, May 19, 2010.

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