Yesterday’s Primaries: The Half-Written Electoral Story

There is no doubt that the results of yesterday’s primaries (Specter’s loss, Paul’s win, and Lincoln’s run-off) are all dramatic outcomes that fit the basic narrative about this year’s elections:  that we are in an anti-Washington, anti-incumbent mode as a country at the moment.  This, of course, is not surprising given the state of the economy (see here and here, for example).

At a minimum, I think that these events will have a short-term effect by encouraging campaigns to focus even more heavily on anti-Washington tactics (indeed, as I noted at PoliBlog the other day, the anti-Washington meme is evident in Alabama commercials for local offices).  Certainly it will create great fodder for political discussion.

However, I think it is worth noting that the long-term story is still unwritten and that some of the more dramatic twists and turns of the tale may end up being less important than we think at the moment.  Commentators love to bring up Senator Bennett’s loss for re-nomination in Utah, but we know that Utah will remain in Republican hands and it isn’t as if Bennett was a wishy-washy moderate—rather, he was staunchly conservative.  The only question I have about Utah is whether their eventual Senator will actually reflect the Tea Party is some way that goes beyond the electoral.  That is:  will Tea Party support actually eventually translate into different legislative behavior, or will it pan out as primarily an electoral strategy more than anything else?  My guess is that the new Senator from Utah will end up voting pretty much the same way Bennett did/would have done.  It will take a while to know for sure, however (so after the current electoral story is written, we have to then see the legislative one written as well).

This leads to Rand Paul’s win in Kentucky.  At a minimum it is a repudiation of Mitch McConnell’s political clout, although I suspect he will be fine.  The questions for Paul are two-fold:  will be he win in November (and of the two GOP candidates, Paul is actually the one the Democrats prefer running against) and then, like with the Future Senator from Utah, how different a Republican will he really be?   Indeed, the Tea Party message is about to get the biggest test that it has faced to date, as up and until now it has mostly been preaching to the choir (i.e., the GOP’s base).  While I am not making any predictions about the Kentucky Senate race, I am saying that Paul is now facing a very different kind of campaign.

If Paul is an example of a GOP reaction against the establishment, the Democrats may be facing the same thing in Arkansas, now that Lincoln has been forced into a run-off.  The proof of the theories running through both parties in Arkansas and Kentucky at the moment will be tested ultimately in November when we see which party controls the seats in question.

Of the three dramatic primaries yesterday, the one that is actually the most significant in the grand scheme of partisan control of the Congress is Arkansas, as a loss by Lincoln in the run-off probably makes it the seat most likely to flip partisan control.  If PA stays in Democratic hands (and, with Sestak, genuinely Democrat ones) and if Paul wins KY, then the partisan status quo remains in place, putting some of the current drama in perspective.

Update: See, also, James’ post (with a news round-up): Specter Loses, Paul Wins, Lincoln in Run-Off: What Does it Mean? As he rightly note: look to November.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter