Searching for a Narrative
Last night's election may be more complicated than you think.
10:28 AM, May 19, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Well, Rand Paul trounced Trey Grayson, Mark Critz beat Tim Burns, and Joe Sestak defeated the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history, while Blanche Lincoln will face Bill Halter in a runoff election. Are these races connected? The first law of punditry says you have to find a theme. But every time I go searching for a theme, I come up short.
Was Rand Paul last night's big winner?
Was last night's election a victory for Democrats? It's too early to tell. Holding on to PA12 was surely a big win. Joe Sestak may be a relatively stronger candidate in the general election against Pat Toomey. Rand Paul may be a relatively weaker candidate than Trey Grayson (though I'm not so sure -- he certainly has an extremely enthusiastic base). Then again, Rep. John Boozman, who avoided a runoff, seems a likely bet to defeat either Lincoln or Halter. The GOP could sweep all three Senate contests come November. We won't know whether it's a victory for the Democrats or the Republicans until Election Day.
Was last night's election anti-big government? In Kentucky it was, for sure. In other places, who knows. Pennsylvania Democrats chose a more liberal candidate than Specter. Mark Critz may say he's conservative on guns and abortion, but he and his supporters know that the PA12 economy depends on federal largesse. His connections to Murtha, and his promises to continue Murtha's legacy, probably mattered more than anything else. In Arkansas, the center-right Democrats may have received more votes than Halter. But who knows where the votes for Morrison will go in the runoff? Many of his backers probably will stay home. And Halter's left-wing support no doubt will be energized by his strong showing.
Was last night's election anti-incumbent? Perhaps, if we change "anti-incumbent" to "anti-establishment." What is the establishment? Anyone connected to the powers that be in both parties in Washington, D.C. The electorate is searching for fresh faces. Joe Sestak has only been in Congress for three years, so he can claim to be relatively free of the Beltway taint. Specter can't, and he went down. The voters in PA12 will have a newbie representing them in Congress. You can't get much more anti-establishment than Rand Paul. (And let's not forget that his win was also a win for Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint.) In Arkansas, the anti-Lincoln vote (55.5 percent) was much higher than her share (44.5 percent).
The problem with the anti-incumbent theme is that there are always some incumbents who win. Not every theme is true in every particular. But clearly something different is happening this year. My theory is that voters want to dismiss the elites who got the country into its current predicament. Some of those elites are Republicans, but many more are Democrats, simply because the Democrats have had two very good elections in a row.
That may not be a satisfying answer. But at least we can be satisfied that, decades from now, historians will pronounce with absolute authority that last night's contests were important because they set Rand Paul on the path to the presidency.
I'm kidding about that last part.