Specter Loses, Paul Wins, Lincoln in Run-Off: What Does it Mean?

Arlen Specter Loses Primary In yesterday’s much ballyhooed Super Duper Tuesday Primaries, we got the results most of us were expecting based on an analysis of the polls and the trendlines.

  • Arlen Specter’s bid to save his career, which was going to end in the Republican primaries, by switching parties ended instead in the Democratic primaries, losing 47 to 53 to Joe Sestak.
  • Tea Party candidate Rand Paul beat Establishment Anointed Trey Grayson in the Republican primary to replace Jim Bunning; he’ll almost surely go on to win in November.
  • Meanwhile, Blanche Lincoln failed to secure a majority in a three-way race and will face Bill Halter in a June 8 run-off for the Democratic nomination.

So, what to make of all this?

The Rise of the Tea Party

Some say it’s the rise of the Tea Party.  Paul says so proudly:

In his victory speech, Paul applauded the tea party movement and issued a stern warning to the political establishment: “I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We’ve come to take our government back.”

“The tea party movement is about saving the country from a mountain of debt that is devouring our country and that I think could lead to chaos,” Paul said grimly, laying in to President Barack Obama for his participation in last year’s Copenhagen summit on global warming and accusing Obama of trying to “apologize for the industrial revolution.”

Reactions to Paul’s nomination split sharply from the left and right. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who endorsed Paul in the primary, called the election a “wake-up call” in an interview with the Associated Press, describing the campaign as “an opportunity to not embrace the status quo but to shake things up.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine painted the Kentucky race as a victory for “the far-right Republican segment of the electorate,” calling Paul a nominee “whose ideas are outside of the political mainstream.”

Sen. Arlen Specter warned on Tuesday that without him Democrats may not be able to fend off a tea party “takeover.””What you see happening across the country is that the tea party organization has taken over,” Specter said in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.   “We know what happened to [Sen. Bob] Bennett [R-Utah], what happened to [Florida GOP Gov. Charlie] Crist,” Specter said.   “They drove him out of the Republican Party,” Specter said of Crist, now running for the Senate as an independent in Florida.


“If we’re not careful, if you don’t field the strongest candidate — frankly, like Arlen Specter — they’re going to take over,” Specter said of the tea parties. “Beating the tea party gang is more important than who does the beating.”   “They want to go back to the gold standard,” he added. “It’d be an 18th-century America.”

Clearly, that’s a chance Pennsylvania Democrats are willing to take.

Marc Ambinder also sees this as the Tea Party’s moment. Sort of.

Rand Paul is in the spotlight tonight. He’s enjoying Scott Brown-like status as the Most Powerful Republican In The World. And look: he says he represents the Tea Party movement. So that must be the end of it, right?

Well, being the son of Ron Paul, and having a name like him (Ron, Rand), matters. That’s a less cliche way of saying that election results are the product of candidates and their environment, with money, endorsements and issues playing a secondary role.

The Tea Party finally has a real notch in its belt. Rand Paul called them to power tonight.

But let’s be careful about giving this amorphous movement too much credit. Rand Paul first attracted attention in Kentucky because he was Rand Paul. Then he married his anti-government message to his father’s economic libertarian movement. He parried against an opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who embodied the establishment. Nevermind that this establishment was doing everything in its power to thwart Barack Obama … politics doesn’t always make sense. But Paul was change. A specific kind of change. He was acceptable enough for frustrated conservative base voters. And he’s going to be a tough candidate for Democrats to beat in the fall.

Paul represents pure, unadulterated libertarian-conservative id. He’s not a candidate of sound bites or self-censorship. He seems authentic. Authenticity is a myth, because Paul is a product of so many different strands of American history and thought, but it endears a candidate to voters who think Washington is fake.


We still haven’t figured out how to distinguish between Tea Partiers and base conservatives. Here’s the way I propose it: Tea Partiers are best identified by their media consumption habits (Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity) and whether they adopt a specific variant of conservative populism, one that is rooted in an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, a pastoral view of the past, and a sense that the world is escaping the boundaries of their comprehension. The rest are just plain, average conservatives. Anti-establishment sentiments — what does that mean, exactly? Fox News is as much a part of the Republican establishment as Mitch McConnell is. No, the Tea Partiers and conservatives, or Tea Party conservatives, are protesting what’s getting done, versus what’s not getting done. The more success President Obama seems to be having, the angrier the Tea Party becomes. I do not think this is a coincidence. What is true: the Tea Party movement is now firmly yoked to the Republican Party’s near-term future.

Anti-Incumbent Sentiment or Anti-Democrat Sentiment?

But others say that it’s just an anti-incumbent year.  Or an anti-Democrat year.

Sean Trend for RealClearPolitics thinks it’s the latter, with the former merely a Democratic talking point

Almost all election analysts now agree that 2010 will not be a good year for Democrats. The latest RCP Averages for the major Senate races show Republicans picking up 7 Senate seats (down from 8 one month ago). This is a striking reversal from the early months of Obama’s presidency, when most forecasters were predicting Democratic gains.

The House has shown similar movement. Early in the cycle, pundits predicted sunny days for the Democrats in November of 2010, with beltway forecasters like Charlie Cook (“Obama’s Democrats are heading down a track much closer to 1934’s [when they picked up seats]”) and Stu Rothenberg (“[T]he chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero”) arguing that major GOP gains were close to impossible. Today it is a different story, and Cook now believes that it is hard to see how Democrats keep the House, while Rothenberg sees a 25-30 seat pickup (with gains in excess of 40 seats possible). I see a 50-seat Democratic loss as the most likely outcome, with the potential for things to get considerably worse.

In a lengthy analysis worth reading in full, he argues persuasively that it’s Democratic incumbents who are mostly at risk.    But Jonathan Martin and Charles Mahtesian note that the Republicans lost yesterday in the special election to fill Democrat John Murtha’s old seat, which proves the opposite:

All the evidence pointing to monster Republican House gains this fall—the Scott Brown upset win in Massachusetts, the scary polling numbers in once-safely Democratic districts, the ever-rising number of Democratic seats thought to be in jeopardy—was contradicted Tuesday.

In the only House race that really mattered to both parties—the special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania’s 12th District—Republicans failed spectacularly, losing on a level playing field where, in this favorable environment, they should have run roughshod over the opposition.

Given the resources the GOP poured into the effort to capture the seat and the decisiveness of the defeat—as it turned out, it wasn’t really that close—the outcome casts serious doubt on the idea that the Democratic House majority is in jeopardy and offers comfort to a Democratic Party that is desperately in search of a glimmer of hope.

All Politics is Local

My alternative explanation is that each of these contests is idiosyncratic and thus tells us little about what’s going to happen in November, much less in 2012.

Specter is a tool.  He’d worn out his welcome with the GOP and cravenly switched parties, not even bothering to hide that he was doing it to save his own ass.  On top of it, he went from being a lousy Republican to being a lousy Democrat.   Oh, and he’s 80 years old, was seeking a sixth six year term, and has a history of serious health problems.

Lincoln is a moderate Democrat in a conservative state.  She cast some unpopular votes.  And she could still win the run-off.

I’ll let Dodd Harris, who actually lives in Kentucky, do the analysis on that race.  But my distant take is that Rand Paul is a likable guy who charismatically voiced a political philosophy that Kentucky Republicans wanted to hear.  Unless there’s a wave of Tea Party guys winning nominations, it’s just not a trend.

Do I think the Tea Party movement, or at least the sentiment that fuels it, is a big deal?  I do.  But part of it is just the “anti-incumbent” mood.  More importantly, it’s an expression of frustration against the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into.   But I’m not convinced that a movement that’s against something rather than for something is sustainable over the long haul, since winning elections means doing things — and that naturally will split the movement.

Remember, Remember the 2nd of November

Will Republicans pick up a large number of seats in November?  Almost certainly.   That has been clear for months.  Will they pick up a majority in the House and/or Senate?  I still don’t think so but it’s more likely today than it was yesterday morning.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 2010 Election, Climate Change, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    My alternative explanation is that each of these contests is idiosyncratic and thus tells us little about what’s going to happen in November, much less in 2012.

    Exactly. State and local Republican or Democratic parties that run lousy candidates will have increasing problems as the signalling mechanism that party identification provides weakens. That can happen through neglect, lack of performance, or just plain increased information.

  2. sam says:

    Will Republicans pick up a large number of seats in November? Almost certainly. That has been clear for months. Will they pick up a majority in the House and/or Senate? I still don’t think so but it’s more likely today than it was yesterday morning.

    I wonder if it’s more likely? Consider Daniel Larison’s take:

    There are many things about the PA-12 special election that are unique to that race and district, but one thing that ties it to many of the other Republican special election losses over the last three years is the party’s obsession with nationalizing House races that might have conceivably been won by appealing to local issues and concerns. In NY-23 we saw Hoffman scoffing at “parochial” issues, and in NY-20 Tedisco ran a disastrously bad campaign that frittered away all of his advantages as a well-liked local representative and re-made himself into a robot repeating the national party’s message. Before that we saw several failed attempts in IL-14, MS-01 and elsewhere to run against “Pelosi-Reid,” when the real competition came in the form of effective candidates with strong local connections. …

    Burns and Critz will face each other again in November, but it will be that much harder to dislodge Critz once he is a member of the House. Far from showing that no seat is safe, it showed that when it came time to deliver on overblown predictions of massive Republican gains this year the GOP failed. I don’t expect Republican leaders to announce this to the world, but if they are to have any chance of coming close to their goals of winning back the House they have to contest House elections differently than they have been doing over the last few years.

    Is there any evidence that the Republicans will heed Larison’s advice?

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Critz ran against healthcare reform; he’s opposed to abortion and gun control. It’s difficult to tar such a candidate as a Pelosi Democrat.

  4. Billy says:

    Tea Party candidate Rand Paul beat Establishment Anointed Trey Grayson in the Republican primary to replace Jim Bunning; he’ll almost surely go on to win in November.

    (emphasis added)

    Now, there is no doubt a boatload of hubris as to this contest on both sides of the aisle, but I note that “Democrats relish Paul’s GOP win in Ky. Senate race” is the AP headline on this issue. In any case, postulating the foregone conclusion of Paul’s ascendancy to the junior senate seat seems premature at this juncture…

  5. steve says:

    Voted against Specter. Time for him to go regardless of his party affiliation.


  6. sam says:

    I kinda like Duncan’s observation:

    Maybe The Next One?

    Critz’s victory is no great victory for liberals obviously, but for weeks Republicans and reporters have been primed to treat the inevitable Republican victory there as some sort of sign that the Republican wave was going to destroy the Democrats in November. It shouldn’t be big news that a Republican would win a district that went for John McCain, and he, uh, lost. For those who are counting, that’s 7 straight special elections won by Democrats. I’m sure the Republican wave will start building any minute now.

  7. wr says:

    PD Shaw — Is there any doubt that if Critz had lost, you would have been trumpeting the defeat of a “Pelosi Democrat”? Yes, he’s a conservative Dem, but the entire hope of a Republican wave rests on your party being able to take out these very same conservative Dems.

    And I’d be a lot more worried about the coming wave if all the pundits predicting it hadn’t been so completely wrong about 2008. How many times did Charlie Cook write that there was no way the Democrats would take the Sentate? I lost count around six thousand…

  8. PD Shaw says:

    I’m a registered independent who has voted for people like Obama, Gore, Clinton, Durbin and G*d help me Blagojevich, Edwin Edwards, and William Jefferson. I really don’t care who won PA-12.

    I just disagree that it was all local politics. The act of distinguishing oneself strongly from the national party is what sets up the focus on local politics. It’s actually a recognition of the influence of national politics in the district.