May 18 primary elections in three states showed that president Obama has very short political coattails.
In Pennsylvania, a swing state that Obama carried with 55% of the vote in 2008, the 80-year-old Democrat US senator Arlen Specter lost his primary bid for a sixth term by a wide margin of 54-46. The winner was 2-term congressman and former Navy admiral Joe Sestak, who is much more liberal than Specter.
Political analyst James Carville once said jokingly that “Pennsylvania has Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, and Alabama in between”.
Specter’s big loss comes after Obama and vice president Joe Biden endorsed Specter, who changed from a Republican to a Democrat in 2009. But Sestak effectively used TV ads that showed Specter being endorsed in the 2004 election and thereafter by Republican president George W. Bush.
In that 2004 race, Specter defeated Pat Toomey in the Republican primary, and would have faced Toomey again in the 2010 primary. So he switched to the Democrat party because he felt he was going to lose to the younger and more conservative Toomey. Instead he now has lost to Sestak.
Sestak will face pro-growth conservative Toomey in November. Toomey easily won his primary race on Tuesday.
Obama made no effort to visit Pennsylvania to help Specter, and for good reason. In the last three states where Obama personally campaigned for the candidate, all three Democrats lost – in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had said before election day that Obama was watching the primary races “not that closely”. Which is nonsense. Obama’s entire life is built on political power and he is going to follow it, moment by moment.
Republicans will be happy to see the turncoat Specter defeated. Pennsylvania voters apparently saw Specter as a Washington opportunist in his party switch.
In another important race, Mark Critz, a Democrat, won a special election in southwestern Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district to fill the seat of the late Democrat John Murtha, who was first elected in 1974 and who died unexpectedly this past Winter. Late returns showed Critz winning by 8 points over Republican Tea Partier and businessman Tim Burns.
Unfortunately for Obama, Critz ran as a conservative Democrat against Obama policies of health care and cap and trade. Critz is pro-life and pro-gun. Burns was expected to have had a chance to take the seat. He may run again in November when the seat comes up in the normal election cycle.
The 12th district, which voted for Kerry in 2004 then McCain in 2008, has a 2-to-1 majority Democrat registration, with a big blue collar population in the industrial/coal belt of the state including Johnstown, the industrial city of the famous 19th century flood. Critz ran as a Blue Dog conservative. But many Blue Dogs run as conservatives then vote liberal once in office. Critz should be watched closely for this behavior.
Obama’s approval numbers in the district are reported to be under 40%.
In Arkansas, incumbent US senator Blanche Lincoln, seeking a 3rd term in Washington, defeated her primary challenge from the left from union-backed lieutenant governor Bill Halter, who played an anti-incumbent game against Lincoln, But Lincoln did not get 50% of the vote in the three-way contest. So they will have another primary. That race went 45-43 to Lincoln who is considered vulnerable in the general election in November, having voted with Obama on many issues including the health-care bill and bank bailouts.
Arkansas has been a Democrat-leaning state for many years. Bill Clinton was a Democrat governor of Arkansas. And while three of the state’s four US congressmen currently are Democrats, the mood this year seems to be trending Republican. The GOP challenger in the November US Senate race will be the state’s lone Republican congressman John Boozman.
In the Kentucky US senate primary, conservative Republican and Tea Partier Rand Paul, a doctor and the son of Texas congressman and 2008 presidential candidate Ron Paul, trounced his opponent Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson, winning with 59% of the vote in the race to replace US senator Jim Bunning.
Grayson was the darling of the Republican establishment including Kentucky US senator Mitch McConnell and Dick Cheney, while Paul was favored by Bunning and Sarah Palin.
The choice of Paul is yet another example of growing Tea Party strength. Paul was explicit in his victory statement. “The Tea Party movement is about saving the country from a mountain of debt.” He added, “We’ve come to take our government back.”
Paul is truly a figure on the rise, coming out of nowhere as he did.
What do these elections show?
They show first that Obama is not immune from the pattern in which the party in the White House loses seats in the first congressional election after winning the presidency. Only the Republicans in 2002 bucked that trend in the last 70 years, with congressional pickups in that year.
Obama’s situation is much more fragile, however. After he came into the presidency as the impeccable leader of a party that was expected to be entrenched for the next 25 years, Republicans were being called everything from “dead” to “a regional white man’s party”. But that will change this year.
Some Democrats are trying to say that Republican wins in November will push Obama to the center and assure his re-election in 2012. Which is what you would say if you were desperate to put a good face on what appears to be an increasingly bad outcome.
In another big development, Richard Blumenthal, the long-serving Democrat Connecticut attorney general who was the odds-on favorite to replace retiring Democrat US senator Christopher Dodd, has been found to have lied in several public statements about having served in Vietnam. This could give the seat in November to one of his Republican opponents, former three-term Connecticut congressman Rob Simmons, or more likely Linda McMahon, wife of Vince McMahon and CEO of her husband’s company World Wrestling Entertainment. McMahon is said to be prepared to spend up to $50 million of her husband’s fortune on the seat.
Dodd is stepping down after a long career in Washington following a financial scandal involving a sweetheart mortgage deal.
In another story, Indiana Republican congressman Mark Souder will resign Friday in light of a sexual scandal. His likely replacement would be Tea Party activist Republican and Indiana state senator Marlin Stutzman, who ran in the recent Indiana Republican primary for the US Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Evan Bayh. Former US senator Dan Coates won that race.
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