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

Linda McMahon, former chief executive of the World Wrestling Entertainment company, is running as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

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.

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