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Primary elections saw big wins for anti-establishment candidates and incumbents

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; A03

Tuesday's primary elections produced a series of seemingly contradictory claims and interpretations: a good night for outsiders and the "tea party" movement, an equally good night for incumbents and President Obama. What it all means for November is the real question.

Has the anti-incumbent fever begun to break? Appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet's victory in Colorado, coming after Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln's win in Arkansas two months ago, might be seen as evidence that it has -- except Democratic strategists don't think that's necessarily the case.

Is anti-establishment, pro-outsider sentiment just as powerful as it has been advertised all year? Ken Buck's tea party-fueled victory in Colorado's GOP Senate primary lends credence to that conclusion. So does outsider Linda McMahon's easy defeat of a former House member in the party's Senate primary in Connecticut.

But former congressman Nathan Deal's victory over Sarah Palin-backed Karen Handel in Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary demonstrated that even in the GOP, a Washington label is not always fatal.

More significant, strategists in both parties say, is that the tea party movement -- although providing energy that could bring big Republican gains in November -- may be creating opportunities for Democrats by helping to nominate less-electable GOP candidates.

On the Democratic side, one question is whether the president and his operation, whose political clout had been called into question by earlier losses this year, can redeem themselves through upfront support of Bennet's candidacy.

In part they have. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called Tuesday's results "nothing but good news" for Democrats.

But Obama remains a less welcome surrogate in some parts of the country this year than at any time since he emerged on the national stage. In the same week that Bennet's victory gave the president a boost, Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White decided not to appear with him during Obama's trip to the Lone Star State.

Matthew Dowd, who was a senior political adviser to President George W. Bush and is now an independent analyst for ABC News, said Tuesday's results in which both anti-establishment candidates and incumbents prospered are entirely understandable, given the shape of the electorate.

There is frustration across the political spectrum, he said, but the angriest voters this year are among those in the tea party movement. That means anti-establishment sentiment is far more likely to be felt for now in Republican primaries.

"It's the difference between a campfire in the Democratic primary and a bonfire in the Republican primary," Dowd said. "When you have a campfire, you can control it."

Poor indicators

Democratic incumbents who have fallen have either been tarred by scandal (Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia) or switched parties in a blatant bid for survival (Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania). But Bennet and Lincoln were able to survive.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said the nomination of tea party candidates "makes it easier" for Democrats in the fall. But he offered other conclusions from Tuesday's results that were less rosy for party members. The first is that even in a year of anti-incumbency, not all incumbents are going to lose -- but Democrats shouldn't start feeling too good about that. "Those who come out of yesterday and say there is no anti-establishment and no anti-incumbency are misinterpreting that data," he said.

Second, primary elections or special elections are often poor indicators of what will happen in the general election. "To the extent there is an anti-Democratic trend out there, which I think there is, you're not going to see it in a primary and not necessarily see it in a special election," he said. "But that doesn't mean there's no trend."

Buck's victory in Colorado is the latest example of the degree to which GOP primary voters this year prize conservative outsiders. Earlier, Republicans saw the muscle of those voters in Kentucky, where libertarian and tea party favorite Rand Paul defeated the establishment choice in the Senate contest. The same happened in Nevada, where Sharron Angle, who had strong support among tea party activists, won the GOP Senate nomination.

Republicans also may be squandering hopes to win the governor's race in Colorado, where tea party favorite Dan Maes defeated scandal-plagued former congressman Scott McInnis in the party's primary. Conservative former congressman Tom Tancredo is running a third-party campaign that is expected to divide the vote.

Benefiting from bonfires

Citing Colorado, Kentucky and Nevada among others, Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine argued that Democrats are benefiting from the bonfires on the right. "While the big-picture atmospherics seem tough, what's happening is that a whole series of races are setting up well for us in individual contests," he said.

But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the energy on the right augurs well for GOP turnout in November. Cornyn worked to recruit former lieutenant governor Jane Norton for Colorado's Senate primary but said that Buck "can and I think will win in November."

Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who has taken sides against the GOP establishment in a number of primaries and who backed Buck over Norton, issued a statement in which he called the Colorado matchup "a choice between a fighter for limited government and a rubber stamp for Obama's reckless agenda."

Democrats got some relief Tuesday night. But they still have a challenging environment. GOP strategists remain confident about the fall. Still, there are qualms with the party.

Republican pollster Glen Bolger produced a survey this week forecasting big gains in the Senate. Sizing up Tuesday's results, he said he remains bullish, but with this caveat:

"Will we leave some seats on the table or will we maximize our opportunities?"

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