On May 18, primary elections in four states saw the end of a 30-year Senate career and victory for the anti-establishment movement. Experts from around the halls of Brookings comment on Tuesday’s election results, how voter sentiment will affect governance, and the upcoming mid-term elections.
In this edition:
The primary results reflect the continuing collapse of the political center in the U.S. Congress. Strong voices from the left and right are now preferred over those emphasizing compromise, bargaining, and negotiation. Specter’s loss removes one of the few remaining “moderates” from the Senate. This is not a new trend, but one that has developed over a number of years and now has reached its full impact.
Political observers really should think about how all that anti-establishment sentiment is going to affect governance. We are choosing leaders who see virtue in taking strong stances and not compromising fundamental principles. While that stance is noble in and of itself, its governing consequences are enormous. When we have a body such as the Senate populated by strong believers operating in an institution where individuals can place secret holds and stop bills in their track, it is hard to see anything but gridlock and polarization as the prevailing themes for years to come.
The biggest (and only) surprise in Tuesday’s elections was the relative ease with which Democrats retained former Rep. Jack Murtha’s seat in Pennsylvania. The district, which John McCain carried in 2008 after John Kerry’s victory there in 2004, was tailor-made for a Republican pickup. Confident forecasts that a Republican wave in November would almost certainly sweep the Democrats out of power were premature – it could happen but Obama and the Democrats have a reasonable shot at retaining their majority. The Senate results also give Democrats grounds for guarded optimism. Sestak will be a stronger candidate than Specter would have been. And the Republican seat in Kentucky is now in play with the nomination of libertarian and Tea Party champion Rand Paul and Democratic state Attorney General Jack Conway. Arkansas remains a very likely Republican pickup.
All of the talk about anti-establishment voting presumes that pro-establishment support is the norm. Endorsements by presidents, congressional leaders, and state party officials in midterm Senate and House elections seldom are consequential. Public anger and distrust of political and economic elites is a reality in the wake of the devastating financial and economic crisis and the controversial nature of the policies deemed necessary to cope with it. But how that anger and distrust play out in November is yet to be determined. To be sure, as the party in power, Democrats will bear the brunt of that public distemper and lose a substantial number of seats in the House and Senate (especially after their big gains in 2006 and 2008). But Republicans are not in an optimal position to capitalize fully on this dynamic. The public continues to hold George W. Bush primarily responsible for our economic problems, believes the GOP has been less cooperative than Obama in addressing our most serious challenges, and has even more unfavorable views of Republicans than Democrats. Passage of financial reform, steady job gains between now and November, and an aggressive campaign by Democrats – nationally by trying to frame the election as a choice rather referendum, locally with well-funded candidates pitching their campaigns to the state and district political terrain – could well succeed in denying Republicans what has become the test of their midterm success.