Primary Election Roundup
ALLISON KEYES, host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, a school district in Rhode Island that fired nearly the whole staff comes to terms with the union to bring them all back. Can the broken school be fixed?
But, first, four states held primaries for races that politicos touted as bellwethers for the midterm elections in November. Whether or not you believe the hype that the political fate of this country can be found in the primary results from Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon and Pennsylvania, it's hard to ignore some of this year's trends.
Last week on this program we heard about the high number of African-Americans running as Republicans, the most since Reconstruction. And last night, some historic results that some are taking as a referendum on the mood of a voting public increasingly disillusioned with the Washington politics.
Two of our regular political contributors are here to talk about it. Pamela Gentry is a senior political analyst for BET. She's sitting right here in our studios in Washington. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with the San Diego Union Tribune and also for CNN.com, and he joins us from San Diego. Welcome to both of you.
Ms. PAMELA GENTRY (Senior Political Analyst, BET): Good to talk with you.
Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist, San Diego Union Tribune): Thank you, good to be here.
KEYES: Pam, let me start with you, since you're sitting here, and a race we talked about last week. That was that Republican primary in Arkansas' first district. We played some tape of African-American Republican candidate Princella Smith, a former congressional staffer, who shared with us the question she was getting from voters.
Ms. PRINCELLA SMITH (Candidate, First District, Arkansas): Are you a conservative? Are you pro-life? What is your - what are you going to do about the unemployment rate in Arkansas? Those are the questions I get. It's been mainly media and press that ask me about race.
KEYES: So, she was endorsed by Newt Gingrich and - among others. So, was she was able to put a win column for black Republicans last night?
Ms. GENTRY: I think what she's done is she's shown what we talked about, is that they will look at the issues and they may not look at race first. But the thing will be, will she be able to garner the black vote in the end? Because all of these districts, whether they are predominantly white or not, they're going to have some minority count. And we just don't see those numbers show up on the Democratic ticket. So when she faces her challenger coming out of a primary race, we'll have to see what she does with the rest of the population.
KEYES: But she lost last night, right?
Ms. GENTRY: Well, she did. Her loss was that she didn't win her primary, but she is not going to give up. I mean, Princella is in this to win it. I mean, she's going to stay in there. And I think that what she'll do now is she'll put herself back together and come back in the - come back again to try and run.
KEYES: So you think she's going to run as an independent?
Ms. GENTRY: Well, the last time - I actually spoke with her about two weeks before we did the last interview and her thing was that she wanted to get her name out there. She wanted name recognition. She wanted to start making black Republicans popular and black Republicans visible. And I think she did accomplish that. But I don't think that she's going to go to the independent ticket. I think she'll stick as a Republican and I think she'll reappear again.
KEYES: But does her loss kind of speak to the alleged aversion that voters are having to candidates that are backed by the establishment of either party? I mean, she knows Michael Steele. She's had some pretty big...
Ms. GENTRY: I don't think. I don't think that black candidates on the Republican ticket are part of any establishment, to be honest with you. I think that they're outliers. And I think that's where she wants to be. But I think that she wants to prove that black Republicans can make a difference.
KEYES: Ruben, let me turn to you and talk about one of the primaries on everybody's lips in Washington, D.C. - even though it's the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. It was thought at first or at least for a little while that five-term Arlen Specter was easily going to win, but that didn't really happen last night, did it?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: It really didn't. And you know, on the ground, Pennsylvania, I think there was a real sense that he was dead in the water long before this election came about because when you really step back and think about it, independent of sort of any sort of pro-Washington bias because here's a guy who's been in town for a long time. We all sort of him and, you know, he's more moderate than a lot of Republicans when he used to be a Republican and all this.
But, I mean, on the ground in Pennsylvania it had a sound of desperation of somebody who knew he couldn't win on the Republican side and then opportunistically switched to become a Democrat. That at the grassroots level in towns like Scranton is not going to play very well and didn't play very well. And so he was very handily, I think, defeated. So that's an important, you know, part. It's part of the least surprising aspect of the evening because people just didn't trust him.
The Democrats said, well, why don't we just elect a real Democrat as opposed to somebody who's posing as a Democrat. The Republicans obviously hated him, you know, he'd lost independents as well. So it's really - it really was sort of a foregone conclusion that when you try to jump off one horse and onto another one like that, you rarely pull it off.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KEYES: So it was the party switch - I'm sorry, the horses was funny - so it was a party switch that...
Mr. NAVARRETTE: I mean, in old cowboy movies they could do that, but it's a hard trick to pull off, I mean, politically. So I think most of us would've been shocked had he been able to pull it off. But, you know, I was struck too by something else. A lot of people who are Democrats in Pennsylvania have long memories.
And I remember hearing from people who said, you know, I didn't like Arlen Specter since, as a Republican he went after Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. I mean, they reached all the way back, right?
KEYES: Yeah, that's a long way now.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: And went all the way back to the - yeah - to the Thomas/Hill hearings and they said to themselves, as Democrats, white Democrats, they lost their taste for the guy then. They couldn't get over it. Who can blame them? They just - they kept this grudge, they kept this negative feeling about him. And politicians may think that we all have short memories, but the people in Pennsylvania proved otherwise.
KEYES: So listening to the pundits, this is a huge sign of the political mood of the country, but is it really? Is it as dire as a lot of people are saying?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it is. I think people really are worried. I mean, I look at our, you know, the household finances and you think to yourself, okay, we spend too much, we need to make more money, we need to spend less. That kind of equation, that kind of budgeting needs to take place in Washington. And most people understand that we don't have any more money, that we're broke and that we are overextended.
And whether you're a Democrat or Republican or independent or whatever, there is a sense that Washington doesn't get it and doesn't understand the severity of the problem and it just wants to grow government bigger and bigger. And so I think that's really part of the problem. That's one of the reasons career politicians are having a tough go of it right now.
And, frankly, a lot of people out there are willing to roll the dice on something new. It used to be you could come forward and say, I've got all this experience, I've been in Congress for 30 years. You say that today, you're dead meat. I mean, why would I want to put you back in Congress? You've been there for 30 years. You must've had a hand in messing everything up.
KEYES: Pam, is the mood really that dire outside of Washington?
Ms. GENTRY: You know, I think what we learned last night, that all politics is local. And that even though we can sit on the national scale and say, oh my god, look, the sky is falling, the sky is falling, you look at a race where, for instance, the primary where there was actually a victory with - in Murtha's district, what the Democrats actually...
KEYES: You mean John Murtha.
Ms. GENTRY: John Murtha.
KEYES: The late John Murtha.
Ms. GENTRY: The late John Murtha. In his district where Critz, the former staffer who was endorsed by congressman's wife, who was really a staunch, I would say, moderate Democrat, but conservative in his root...
KEYES: And the district is kind of conservative.
Ms. GENTRY: And that district is very conservative. He walked away with a victory. And the reason is that that was an antiestablishment vote in the sense that they were saying, well, all things aren't terrible with the congressmen that we've lost and the person who appears to succeed him. Because he's thinking about us, working class people, you know, people who really need jobs, who need to see the economy change.
And they actually sent someone who may not be a career politician, but very similar to the person who left that seat. So what I think happens here is that people look at it on a national scale and they say, oh my goodness, you know, the sky is falling, but when you're talking about my backyard, I want someone who represents me. And that's I think why Specter also lost.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. And I'm speaking with Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist and frequent contributor to CNN and Pamela Gentry, senior political analyst for BET.
Actually, Pam, let's go back to Arkansas for a minute and talk about incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln. She didn't do what the Democrats were hoping she would yesterday. I mean, she didn't lose, but...
Ms. GENTRY: No, but she's now - she's in the runoff. She didn't get 50 percent of the vote, so now she's going to have to face the lieutenant governor.
KEYES: Let's take a listen to what she said in her speech.
Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): There have been millions of dollars spent by outsiders and this campaign has turned into something that is not Arkansas. It's not who we were. It's not who our parents raised us to be. We want to get back to what it means to be an Arkansan.
KEYES: So, what chance does she have in this runoff, Pam?
Ms. GENTRY: Well, her biggest chance right now is there is 13 percent of the vote went to a candidate that was all the way - I think his last name was Grayson - all the way to the - he was extremely, extremely conservative. I don't think any of those voters are going to go with lieutenant governor because they are not - he's the most liberal of the two candidates. She's the moderate.
So I think there's 13 percent of the vote that went to this third person, that she's going to get a few of those percentages. She's going to need the majority of those. If she pulls that out, she will have a victory. Now, will she be strong enough against a real Republican candidate? I think that there were some people - because that state allows an open primary, so you have Democrats and Republicans voting - I think some Republicans may have voted for what they've thought would be strategically a weaker candidate to run in the fall. But let's see. You know, all of that is speculation.
KEYES: Ruben, back to you. And let's go to Kentucky this time, actually.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Sure.
KEYES: Wait, actually, okay, you wanted to say something about Ms. Lincoln. So come on.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: I do. Very quickly. I read a story that was very disconcerting this week about just how horrible Blanche Lincoln has been with regard to African-American voters in Arkansas and the constituency and their concerns. And the fact that...
KEYES: What do you mean by horrible?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Inattentive, doesn't return phone calls, isn't seen as attentive to that community. Isn't seen as someone who is - seen as someone who in a kind of a stereotype takes black voters for granted in Arkansas. Where else are they going to go? She's so concerned in trying to woo conservative whites and put them at ease over her health care votes and other votes that she has neglected the black constituency.
That is interesting to me because - not just because we see it a lot around the country with Democrats taking the black vote for granted, but in this case in this runoff now, African-Americans get a chance to go back to her and say, okay, now, now you really need us. We're not going to give you our vote in this runoff. We're not going to help you get back to the Senate unless we get some guarantees from you or assurances from you that you are going to treat the next six years different than you did the last six years.
And I think it's a great trend that African-Americans and Latinos stop being taken for granted by the Democratic Party. And unfortunately, from everything I've heard, Blanche Lincoln has become a poster girl for that kind of phenomenon there in Arkansas.
KEYES: Ruben, briefly, let's talk about Kentucky's primary for the state Senate seat there. Rand Paul, the son of the former presidential candidate Ron Paul...
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.
KEYES: ...emerged victorious.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.
KEYES: And the Tea Party is basically going - saying ha-ha. Is it that big of a deal for them?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
KEYES: I mean, does this prove that they are really, really on a roll for this year?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's huge. It's huge. I mean, they've got now somebody in the Senate who is a true believer, who is a Tea Party candidate. He's on his way to the Senate, I should say, and by all appearances. And here's a guy who had no political experience, comes out of, you know, with great name recognition, I guess, because of his father Ron Paul, who ran for president successfully, but still delivered the goods and won this. Now, here's the bad news for Republicans.
KEYES: And make it really brief, Ruben.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Bad news for the Republicans, the establishment went the other way. They endorsed the other candidate and they lost. So anybody in the Republican Party who thinks the Tea Party is in their back pocket has another thing coming. They're riding this tiger. Last night the tiger devoured the Republican Party.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KEYES: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. And Pamela Gentry is a senior political analyst for BET who joined us right here in Washington, D.C. Thanks to you both.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.
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