NPR logo Anti-Incumbent? Yes, But Maybe Not So Much

Anti-Incumbent? Yes, But Maybe Not So Much

Political parties in 15 states have yet to hold their primaries. And Labor Day — once considered the traditional start of the fall campaign season — is still more than three weeks away.

But developments this week, from provocative primary results in three states to the ensuing scramble by party operatives to spin the message voters sent, have served up a clear picture of what awaits candidates this fall.

That is, if "clear" even remotely characterizes what has emerged in the days following the primary contests in Colorado, Connecticut and Minnesota and a GOP runoff in Georgia.

Bennet and his wife, Susan Dagget, celebrated his primary win Tuesday. Ed Andrieski/AP hide caption

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Ed Andrieski/AP

Bennet and his wife, Susan Dagget, celebrated his primary win Tuesday.

Ed Andrieski/AP

It’s been a week during which the anti-incumbent, throw-the-bums-out narrative that had taken hold in the media in recent months suffered a blow. So too has the resurgent Republican Party's dream of fashioning a takeover of Congress by carefully harnessing the energy of Tea Party fiscal conservatives.

And with polls showing an increasingly discouraged and frustrated electorate, the in-control-of-Washington Democrats celebrated with palpable relief the success of Obama-endorsed, well-funded incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado. He staved off a much more meagerly funded challenger backed, if wanly, by former President Clinton.

It all adds up to a picture of an electorate that, on the Republican side, looks more anti-establishment than anti-incumbent. And of the currently ruling but beleaguered Democratic Party crossing its fingers that roiling in the GOP will stunt the Republicans' ability to take over Congress this fall.

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Primaries in Washington state and Wyoming next Tuesday.

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"The narrative that there's an angry mob out there, that a pitchfork populace revolution was going to throw out incumbents — nothing of the sort," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"This whole thing started because the public is obviously upset," Sabato says, "and two incumbent senators — one from each party — were defeated early."

Sabato was referring to five-term Republican turned Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who lost a primary challenge in May, and three-term GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, whose state party members in a May convention rejected his re-election bid.

Ninety-eight percent of all incumbents who decided to run again for office have been renominated so far this campaign season, Sabato notes. Only Specter and Bennett and four incumbent members of the House have seen their re-election bids die in party primaries or state conventions.

"I’m not denying that there is an anti-incumbency mood," Sabato says. "But right now it's playing out within the Republican Party."

And almost exclusively for seats where no party incumbent is running.

The Tea Party Effect

Factionalism in the Republican Party was most vividly on display in Colorado this week, where a Tea Party favorite also won the gubernatorial nomination. It showed up earlier in states like Kentucky, Nevada and Florida and has been a theme since the beginning of the year, says James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland government and politics professor.

Ken Buck, another contender who won Tea Party support, is the Republican Senate nominee in Colorado. David Zalubowski/AP hide caption

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David Zalubowski/AP

Ken Buck, another contender who won Tea Party support, is the Republican Senate nominee in Colorado.

David Zalubowski/AP

The restiveness reflects a party not out of power long enough to "gain the measure of discipline," says Gimpel, a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer. "If they'd been out of power longer, they would have been better prepared to close ranks and stave off some of these challenging and fragmented primaries."

Instead, the GOP, while still anticipating significant and historically expected midterm gains in the Senate, the House and in the ranks of state governors, has seen its once ripe chances in some key states complicated by restive party members.

The GOP Senate primary wins over establishment candidates by Tea Party favorites Rand Paul for an open seat in Kentucky, Sharron Angle to take on Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada and Ken Buck to challenge Bennet in Colorado have nationalized those races, strategists say.

The same could be said about the Senate race in Florida, where another Tea Party favorite, Marco Rubio, wrested the GOP nomination early from Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now running — competitively — as an independent. (The celebrity of Connecticut's GOP Senate pick, former professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon, also guarantees continued national attention for her race against the Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.)

Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is the GOP nominee for Senate in Connecticut. Charles Krupa/AP hide caption

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Charles Krupa/AP

Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is the GOP nominee for Senate in Connecticut.

Charles Krupa/AP

Those high-profile successes have given Democrats an opening to characterize the Tea Party, and its more extreme adherents, as part and parcel of the Republican Party. That's particularly troubling to GOP leaders as the nation moves toward the fall general election when both parties need to attract more moderate independent voters.

Wasting no time, Democrats in recent weeks have doubled down on efforts to link Republicans with the Tea Party, while also resurrecting former President Bush as a campaign issue.

Handling The Narrative

Some conservative experts say that the emerging Tea Party candidates could have more success in the fall than the more traditional party favorites — depending on the state.

Paul, in Kentucky, for example, has so far consistently polled ahead of his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway. And oddsmakers in Nevada see Buck, a county district attorney, as mounting a formidable challenge to Bennet. Buck may have inadvertently helped himself with general election voters by referring, during the primary campaign, to Tea Party members who question Obama’s birthplace as "dumb asses."

Mike Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation says that the Republican Party may want to consider packaging fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts around the so-called Tea Party candidates.

"It could provide synergy and a sense of shared identity," Franc says. "Suppose you're in Nevada and you think highly of Marco Rubio, and you start hearing him grouped with Angle and Paul — you may be more likely to vote for Angle, to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts."

Marco Rubio, GOP Senate candidate in Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Marco Rubio, GOP Senate candidate in Florida.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

That may be a long-shot strategy — and even Franc says that it’s not clear whether the candidates would want to be linked.

Democrats' Dilemmas

Though the incumbent backlash may be far less than predicted, Democrats are still looking at a troubling road ahead.

Polls show that close to 60 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, and nearly 70 percent are dissatisfied with the state of the country.

Trust in Congress is at a historic low, and the number of voters who identify themselves as Democrats has been eroding. Their hope? 1. That the Tea Party effect will turn off more voters than it will turn out. 2. That the Republican Party’s equally low favorability ratings will temper their voters' higher enthusiasm for turning out at the polls this fall.

An analysis by the online group Real Clear Politics rates eight Senate races as tossups, including six seats currently held by Democrats. It also predicts that Republicans will pick up seats currently held by Democrats in Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, and North Dakota. Longtime Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota opted not to run for re-election.

The site also lists 32 House races — all but one now held by Democrats — as tossups and 26 additional seats currently held by Democrats that are leaning toward or likely to go Republican in the fall.

Sabato is still predicting that the GOP in the fall will pick up seven of the 59 Senate seats held by Democrats — not enough to take over control of that chamber. And he thinks Republicans will capture 32 House seats — they need 44 to take control of the House — and six governors' offices.

"On the whole," Sabato says, "the Tea Party has added energy to the Republicans, but they have also saddled the party with some less-than-ideal candidates."

"You’re going to see a sizable number of incumbents defeated in the fall," he predicts, "but well over 80 percent will be OK."

And that’s pretty much in line, he says, with trends over the past four decades.

Not that things can't change, and quickly.

Just ask Specter and Bennett.