Washington power sits uneasily after vote backlash
More political bloodletting likely looming in November
Incumbent US lawmakers of all political stripes squirmed uneasily in their seats Wednesday after angry voters in key nominating races delivered a stinging anti-Washington backlash.
Results from Tuesday’s primary elections, reflecting voter anger at economic blight, Wall Street bailouts and establishment politicians, suggested more political bloodletting is looming in November’s congressional elections.
They also showed that the yearning for change that Barack Obama rode to the White House is not yet sated, and is now matched on the right by the conservative “Tea Party” movement.
While Obama’s Democrats have long feared Republicans could loosen their stranglehold on congressional power in November, Tuesday’s results also bore ominous signs for the opposition party.
At this volatile moment in US politics, power, of any kind, may be a liability.
In Pennsylvania, veteran Senator Arlen Specter, who switched to the Democrats after concluding he couldn’t win a Republican primary, tumbled to defeat to insurgent candidate, Joe Sestak.
In Arkansas, Democrat Senator Blanche Lincoln failed to head off a run-off vote against an opponent branding her a symbol of incumbent complacency.
In Kentucky, Rand Paul, now vying with Sarah Palin for Tea Party hearts, declared Washington “horribly broken” after beating the handpicked candidate of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
Many commentators seized on Paul’s triumph as proof of the Tea Party’s muscle and the resonance of its low tax, small government, anti-corporate bailout and anti-Obama message.
“It was the perfect storm … it’s the mood of the country and our message being exactly equal to the mood of the country which is: We’ve got to get our government back,” Paul told CNN Wednesday.
In other nominating fights, the Tea Party has also demonstrated its might: in Arizona, long-term incumbent John McCain faces an unexpectedly tough Republican primary fight against a Tea Party favorite J.D. Hayworth.
But while the movement has defied national Republican leaders in primary votes among the most activist voters, its national clout is still in doubt.
In a New York special congressional election in November, a Tea Party revolt put a deeply conservative candidate on the ballot — but handed a reliably Republican district to Democrats.
“The question is going to be in November — is the Tea Party big enough to swing elections?” said Bruce Altschuler of the State University of New York, Oswego.
“Does this conservative insurgent movement give the Republicans strong candidates — or does it allow the Democrats to defeat a more divided Republican Party?”
Whatever the answer, Republican leaders face tough choices as they seek a champion to race Obama for the White House.
“This gives rise to great concern from the Republican Party looking towards 2012,” said Bruce Buchanan, of the University of Texas.
“Can they come up with somebody that is centrist enough to win nationally?”
Establishment Democrats may see a silver lining in Specter’s loss, even though he was backed by the White House after his party switch.
Sestak may turn out to be a better candidate to take on Republican Pat Toomey, whose conservative bona-fides caused Specter to bolt.
Another bright spot for Democrats: they kept the Pennsylvania House of Representatives fiefdom of the late John Murtha, the kind of rural, conservative seat Republicans must win to take back Congress.
But Murtha’s legendary local appeal may mean the result is not representative of countrywide sentiment — despite White House spin.
Current popular anger also poses problems for Obama.
As the architect of a 787 billion dollar stimulus plan, a huge federal health reform drive and a car industry bailout, he can hardly claim to be a Washington outsider.
But posing as an inside man is also a risk, with suspicion of government running so deep.
In Ohio Tuesday, the president tried to thread the needle — surrounded by steelworkers in grimy overalls, portraying himself as a man who stood with the people against entrenched political interests.
“Sometimes in Washington, everybody is spending all their time arguing about politics and you lose track of the folks who sent you there in the first place,” Obama said.
Polls show that voters revile Washington’s partisan bile.
But the nominating process is producing candidates that pander to the grass roots — and may lead to an even more polarized Congress.
Replacing the moderate Specter with Sestak or Toomey will clearly widen divides between the parties, said Tom Baldino, a politics professor at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania.
“The likelihood of a Congress that is more polarized than the current one is very high.”