Anti-Incumbent Voters Sent Messages Tuesday

By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pennsylvania voters dumped two Republican leaders in the state Senate and scared a GOP member of Congress, while Oregon voters sent a warning they are unhappy with the Democratic governor.

Cumulatively, the results Tuesday were the latest signals of brewing unrest that could threaten incumbents of both parties in the November elections.

More than a dozen legislators in Pennsylvania lost their jobs in a revolt over a pay raise for lawmakers that was enacted and later repealed but which provoked outrage among the electorate.

In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) won his primary election but claimed just 54 percent of the vote. He is one of several Democratic executives who face tough reelection contests in a year when Democrats are generally optimistic about their prospects in U.S. House and Senate races. Other embattled Democrats include Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm.

Some of the backlash against incumbents grows out of specific grievances such as the Pennsylvania pay raise or missteps by individual lawmakers. Two weeks ago, Republican primary voters in Indiana voters booted state Senate President Pro Tempore Robert D. Garton, who had served for 36 years, in a rebuke to his support for lifetime health benefits for legislators.

But there are signs of broader disaffection. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 55 percent of those surveyed said they are inclined to look around for someone new rather than support their incumbent members of Congress this fall, the highest level of anti-incumbency since the 1994 midterm elections that dethroned Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Oregon pollster Tim Hibbits said that Republicans in Congress may be most at risk because they are in the majority but added that Democrats in some states with economic problems may suffer as well. "At the federal level, Republicans are in for between a bad night and a very bad night" in November, Hibbits said. "But at local and state level, whoever is in power in those localities where people are in trouble" could face problems, he said.

The defeats of Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer, Majority Leader David J. Brightbill and at least a dozen other state legislators there stunned the political establishment. Grass-roots protests brought primary challenges to 61 incumbent legislators, the most since 1980, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

John Brabender, a GOP consultant who advises U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), said the biggest question facing Keystone State Republicans after Tuesday's electoral setback was whether the voters got it out of their systems.

Brabender said he believes the pay raise issue will be pushed into the background in the fall by Santorum's battle against Democratic Senate nominee Bob Casey Jr. and the contest between Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) and Republican Lynn Swann, a former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver. But Casey's pollster, Frederick S. Yang, said the Republican revolts in Pennsylvania and Indiana suggested more serious fractures in the GOP coalition that will be felt in November.

The other Pennsylvania surprise came in a heavily Republican state Senate district outside Philadelphia, which fell to the Democrats in a special election. G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said the pay raise controversy had nothing to do with outcome. "Democrats have picked up a major plum in the fight for the suburbs," he said.

Among U.S. House primaries in Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Don Sherwood's primary victory with 56 percent of the vote over a little-known and underfunded opponent signaled that his admission of an extramarital affair had damaged his standing and makes him vulnerable to a Democrat in November.

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