The Sunday Take

'Angry electorate' could be unpredictable at polls this fall

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid is vulnerable in Nevada.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid is vulnerable in Nevada. (Ethan Miller/getty Images)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Midterm elections are generally seen as a referendum on the president and his party, particularly in the first term of a new administration. Halfway through this tumultuous year, it is clear there is more on the voters' minds than a judgment on President Obama.

The president's performance and agenda certainly are at the forefront of the voters' concerns as they look to November. His approval ratings speak to questions about his leadership, which have been reinforced by the administration's handling of the gulf oil spill. Triggered by his domestic agenda, concerns about the size and reach of government shape the political climate.

But that's hardly the end of what has given rise to the "angry electorate," the shorthand for the political mood. There is, more broadly, anger at Washington and at politics as usual. There's dissatisfaction with Congress and with incumbents of both parties.

There is also anger at Wall Street, big banks and big corporations. There is anger at corporate executives who reap big bonuses as the economy struggles to recover. Now there is anger at BP over the economic and environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is unhappiness on the right, aimed at the president but also at Republicans who are seen as unfaithful to the core principles of conservatism. The "tea party" activists hope to shake up government, but first they are shaking up the Republican Party.

There is frustration on the left, aimed at Democrats who are seen as insufficiently committed to the agenda that many progressives believed would become reality under Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress.

All of that could result in making this election different than either of the elections of 1994 or 2006, both of which changed party control of Congress. Those two elections are used for historical parallels to events now unfolding. The level of voter dissatisfaction with incumbents, for example, now rivals that of 1994.

By November, the 2010 election might be remembered as similar to those elections if, as Republicans hope, Democrats lose the House and take substantial losses in the Senate. If that happens, Obama and his policies will surely be blamed and 2010 will become the third wave election in two decades.

Democrats are certainly more on the defensive than Republicans. Of the 67 House seats listed as competitive by the Cook Political Report, Republicans hold just seven. But the story of election 2010 so far has had as much to do with the internal debate over the direction of the Republican Party, and with questions about whether Republicans will head into the fall at their most competitive.

So far, Republicans have felt the jolts of the electorate as much as the Democrats, which raises the question of whether the Democrats are in less jeopardy today than they appeared to be a few months ago.

Republican primaries have pushed candidates further to the right. That's certainly the case of former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who is running against the vulnerable Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in California. The GOP's California gubernatorial nominee, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, also was forced to the right in her primary. How much that will hurt them in the general election isn't yet clear, but their situations are not ideal.

The strength of the tea party movement has resulted in Republicans having nominated potentially weaker candidates for Senate races in Kentucky and Nevada. Rand Paul remains the favorite to hold the seat of retiring Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, but he got off to a stumbling start after the primary. In Nevada, embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is still highly vulnerable. But in Sharron Angle, who wants to close down several federal departments, he has drawn an opponent that gives him renewed hope of retaining his job.

The Democratic Senate runoff election in Arkansas, in which Sen. Blanche Lincoln survived a challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who was backed by labor and progressive groups, shows that nimble incumbents can survive even when voters are unhappy with incumbency.

The fragile recovery remains the source of much of the dissatisfaction voters are expressing. Administration policies have not yet delivered and might not in time for Democrats to escape the voters' wrath in November. The oil spill in the gulf is bearing down on Obama, and the government's response has been judged as inadequate, according to the polls. That's one more problem that could keep the president's standing down.

But Democrats will try to turn GOP policies against their candidates, whether it be a Republican candidate who defends -- or worse, practiced -- outsourcing, or the many more who signed on to the policy of "drill, baby, drill" before the oil well blew up and changed public opinion overnight. Republican resistance to new regulations on financial institutions might have a cost as well.

Getting on the right side of the voters will be every candidate's goal, whether they are incumbents or challengers. Every political consultant working for an elected official this year has the same advice: Run like you did the first time you got elected.

"For a voter sitting out there, there is not just one focal point to this election. There are lots of things that are making people angry right now," Democrat pollster Geoff Garin said. He added: "It's clear that there are lots of moving parts to this election that have and will affect individual races. It's not a neat, simple storyline."

Republicans might take issue with that characterization. In their analysis, November will still be largely a referendum on Obama's presidency and the Democrats in Congress. But even they recognize that the frustrations of the voters can register in unexpected ways.

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