Up Front

Primary Offers Insight into the Electorate

William A. Galston

The results of the August 24th primary elections may well have an impact on the fall campaigns, and they certainly provide additional insight into the state of the electorate.

In Florida, Rep. Kendrick Meek handily defeated billionaire businessman Jeff Greene. While Meek will probably get a larger share of the vote in the general election than Greene would have, this may boomerang on Democrats. If Greene had been nominated, many Democrats would have supported Republican Governor Charlie Crist, now running as an independent, against Republican nominee Marco Rubio. But even if Democrats rally around Meek, as seems likely, he would probably not win a plurality of the total vote, but Crist would face a much steeper climb. As an independent senator, Crist would probably caucus with the Democrats, so his defeat would cost Democrats an important vote.

In Alaska, with 98 percent of the precincts reporting but thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted, Joe Miller—a Tea Party-style insurgent who enjoyed the backing of Sarah Palin—holds a narrow lead over incumbent Republican senator Lisa Murkowski. If his edge holds up, it would represent both a stunning upset and further evidence of the wave of discontent crashing down on establishment candidates within the Republican party.

Incumbent Arizona senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who won in a landslide over challenger J. D. Hayworth, might seem to be an exception. But just a few months ago, McCain was in deep trouble with the base of his own party. McCain solved that problem by throwing overboard many of the positions that had earned him a reputation as an independent-minded maverick, repositioning himself as a much more orthodox conservative.

Heading into the fall campaign, there are two different dynamics at work. On the one hand, Democrats are running with sluggish growth, high unemployment, and low presidential approval numbers, a formula for substantial losses. On the other hand, the primary victories of insurgent and Tea Party senatorial candidates in states such as Kentucky and Nevada as well as Alaska will test a discontented electorate’s tolerance for views that could charitably be described as outside the mainstream.

If this is a year in which voters’ frustration trumps their caution, Republicans could regain control of the Senate as well as the House. If not, Republicans may conclude that the Tea Party is a double-edged sword that could negatively affect their prospects against President Obama in 2012. Stay tuned.