Blue Dawn: On Dismal Night for Incumbents, Democrats Glimpse Template

May 19, 2010 7:19am

By Rick Klein Wait — you didn’t think the message would be clean, did you? Here in this awful year for incumbents, with Democrats seriously concerned and Republicans seriously optimistic, the party in power walked away from the biggest voting day short of November no worse for the wear — and maybe even better off than before. The primary results confirm that both parties have not only lost touch with their grass-roots, they’ve watched them turn into thickets that can entangle even the most experienced tenders of electoral gardens. Those weeds don’t respect property lines labeled “D” and “R.” Democrats on Tuesday in effect picked up two House votes: Mark Critz kept a rural Pennsylvania seat (with all accompanying storylines, from Jack Murtha to Obama/McCain to Nancy Pelosi) in Democratic hands, and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., announced he’d step down this week, in admitting an affair with a staffer (and picked a good day to do it so no one would really notice). The banner headline is Sen. Arlen Specter’s defeat — a stunning blow to a Senate legend, plus a repudiation of Washington, President Obama, and much of the Democratic establishment. But Rep. Joe Sestak’s victory leaves Democrats with a roughly equal chance of holding on to the seat in Pennsylvania. Plus, it’s status quo in Arkansas, where a run-off looms for Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, D-Ark. And the big race for Republicans was a big win for the tea party — not exactly the kind of victory that screams general election chances. Rand Paul will go into the general election the favorite in Kentucky over Democrat Jack Conway — but ask Sen. Mitch McConnell whether the GOP went with the strongest candidate. (OK, ask him yesterday…) The one contest where a Republican faced a Democrat — the one where a seat in Congress was actually at stake on Tuesday — featured the Democrat winning fairly comfortably, in a McCain-carried district where Pelosi’s oversized visage literally loomed (in campaign ads.) Your big lesson: Maybe Tip O’Neill is still right after all — and more importantly for Democrats and indeed all incumbents, maybe there’s a way to follow his advice.
“The results were sobering for both parties, amounting to a rejection of candidates selected and backed by leaders in Washington who found themselves out of step with their electorates,” Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse report in The New York Times. “Republicans and Democrats alike are now left to learn the lessons from the frustration being expressed by voters, and to unify behind nominees who face daunting general election campaigns.” Talking PA-12 …. “Exultant Democrats seized on the win as a sign that they can withstand an expected Republican tide in November and keep control of the House,” Mark Z. Barabak writes in the Los Angeles Times. “But the outcome elsewhere could give pause to many longtime lawmakers.”  Slate’s John Dickerson: “There was birth, death, and resurrection. Rand Paul was born as a national leader of the Tea Party movement. Arlen Specter's long political career came to an end. And the Democratic Party and Blanche Lincoln were brought back from the dead.” And on that bright spot on the blue scorecard: “Democrats are going to have a tough year this year. History is against them, the polls are against them and an electorate angry with Washington punishes the party with more representatives in Washington. But this is a story they can whisper to themselves quietly at night to make the demons go away.” “For Democrats, Tuesday's results revealed a possible toolkit for navigating the year's challenging political climate. In a closely watched Pennsylvania congressional race to replace the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha, the Democratic candidate, Mark Critz, successfully wooed conservative voters in his party by opposing Mr. Obama's health-care law, and by opposing abortion rights and gun control,” The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Wallsten and Naftali Bendavid report. From the ABC News wrap: “The race was painted by Republicans as a referendum on the ‘Obama-Pelosi agenda’ and Republicans are now likely to face questions about whether or not, even in this environment, just criticizing the ‘Obama-Pelosi’ agenda as Burns had done through this entire campaign is sufficient.” Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Charles Mahtesian: “The outcome casts serious doubt on the idea that the Democratic House majority is in jeopardy and offers comfort to a Democratic Party that is desperately in search of a glimmer of hope.” Charlie Cook, to The Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut: “The only one that makes any real difference in terms of the president is PA-12 — and he didn't go.” The AP’s Chuck Babington: “Obama's poor record thus far could hurt his legislative agenda if Democratic lawmakers decide they need some distance from him as they seek re-election in what is shaping up as a pro-Republican year.” But at some point, the road to victory has to involve some actual wins: “Democrats remain on the defensive heading toward November, in large part because of divisions over Obama's agenda, the high jobless rate and the size of the federal budget deficit,” Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza report in The Washington Post. “But the results in Pennsylvania's special House election will raise questions about whether Republicans will be able to take control of the House in November, as many of their leaders have predicted.” NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas: “Tonight’s result was undoubtedly disappointing, but we will take the lessons learned from this campaign and move forward in preparation for November.” White House senior adviser David Axelrod, to Politico’s Mike Allen: “If you have a Democratic candidate who runs a good, strong race, they can win — and they can win in a challenging district. … I’m encouraged by what I saw tonight. We are prepared for battle. We’ll grind it out, district by district, race by race.” DNC Chairman Tim Kaine — far from the only Democrat who wants to talk PA-12: “Tonight’s result demonstrates clearly that Democrats can compete and win in conservative districts, including ones like Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, which was won by John McCain in 2008.” Kaine follows up at the National Press Club Tuesday at 12:30 pm Wednesday, “on Democratic prospects for 2010, the Party's strategy to turn out the vote this fall and beat expectations in the mid terms and the stunning setbacks for Republicans last night in PA 12 and in Kentucky,” per the DNC. A wave, but a surfable one: “Barack Obama discovered in 2008 that ‘change’ was the most powerful word in American politics. It still is — and there's no reason to think its potency will dissipate between now and November's congressional elections,” Jerry Seib writes in his “Capital Journal” column. “All that suggests that President Obama didn't catch the national change wave at its crest, as many thought at the time, but rather jumped on it only as it was gathering strength. In some ways, all that has changed are the issues fueling the public's desire to change the political makeup of their capital.”  Anti-establishment forces, established: “The 2010 electorate has swallowed an emetic –disgorging in a series of retching convulsions officeholders in both parties who seem to embody conventional Washington politics,” John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write for Politico. “In effect, the anti-institutional forces that coalesced in recent years now look like an institutional force of their own.” Toxicity tests: “Any doubt about just how toxic the political environment is for congressional incumbents and candidates hand-picked by national Republican and Democratic leaders disappeared late Tuesday,” the AP’s Liz Sidoti reports. “In all three [high-profile Senate] races, voters rejected the instructions of their own party's leadership, as they have repeatedly this year in states as varied as Utah and Florida. Indeed, even before the polls closed, that leadership had mostly gone into hiding,” Time’s Michael Scherer reports. In Pennsylvania — not even close, really: “Sestak's victory was sweeping. He carried every county but Philadelphia, Dauphin, and Lackawanna. And although Specter won Philadelphia handily, turnout on a dismal rainy day was not high enough to save him,” Thomas Fitzgerald and Derrick Nunnally report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Sen. Specter, on Twitter: “Congratulations, Congressman Sestak. You have my support for the general election.” In Kentucky — as pure a tea party win as we’re likely to see: “Riding a wave of anger and frustration, insurgent candidate Rand Paul won Kentucky’s Republican primary for the US Senate last night, transforming the emotional potency of the Tea Party movement into a concrete GOP win and sending a chilling message to entrenched politicians across the country,” The Boston Globe’s Susan Milligan writes. Paul, speaking at a country club (?) in Bowling Green: “I have a message, a message from the tea party. A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words.” Lesson time …. Mark Halperin, at Time: “Don't ever publicly express personal concern about saving your job, talk about how you want to go back to Washington because it is so interesting or discuss the politics of re-election; speak only about what you have done to help your constituents and how you will fight for them in the future.” The AP’s Ron Fournier: “Reconnect with voters … Don’t flip-flop … Stand apart … Don’t get in trouble.” Your Dick Blumenthal fallout… Former Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., adds fuel: “He just kept adding to the story, the more he told it,” Shays tells Michael Barbaro and David Halbfinger, in The New York Times. “It’s very seductive.” “Richard Blumenthal calls them ‘misplaced words,’” Daniela Altimari writes in the Hartford Courant. “Those words, caught on video, are now threatening to take down one of the state's most popular politicians. Almost overnight, the man who has long enjoyed overwhelming public approval ratings, little media scrutiny and only token opposition finds himself facing his biggest fight since he was first elected to the state legislature in 1983.” Other transitions — Rep. Souder makes short work of it. “Saying he had ‘sinned against God, my wife and my family by having a mutual relationship with a part-time member of my staff,’ Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd, said Tuesday he will resign from Congress on Friday,” Sylvia A. Smith reports in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “Souder, 59, has often referred to his religious faith as what shapes him as a person, a politician and a public official. He frequently describes himself as a ‘Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third.’ He also has talked often, when asked about other people whose moral failings have drawn headlines, about all people being sinners and capable of redemption.” Flying solo: “I’m sick of politicians who drag their spouses up in front of the cameras rather than confronting the problem they caused,” Souder said. Wait — was there an election this week? One that the White House may have been paying attention to? Mexican President Felipe Calderon is at the White House on Wednesday, for a full day of meetings, an 11:50 a.m. ET press conference — and yes, a state dinner. Topic one, perhaps: “Propelled by a new Arizona law, the debate over immigration reform will take center stage when President Barack Obama welcomes Mexico's Felipe Calderon to the White House and could overshadow the drug wars as the prime topic in talks between the two countries for the first time in years,” the AP’s Julie Pace reports. “While immigration long has been a source of tension, the controversial Arizona law threatens to add strain to U.S.-Mexican relations. Calderon has condemned Arizona's law, which makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally.” As for the evening …. ABC’s Sunlen Miller: “In the shadow of last year’s state visit, best known for the gate-crashing by socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the White House is hoping that today’s state visit – honoring President Felipe Calderón and Mrs. Zavala of Mexico – will focus more on the ties between the two countries and less about party-crashers. With a new social secretary, new security protocols and one state visit under their belt already, the White House has expressed confidence that the day-long visit will run smoothly, culminating in a glamorous black-tie state dinner this evening.” Digging into the Elena Kagan questionnaire (and gotta love the sports bylines from The Daily Princetonian): From grad school: “As a young graduate student, Elena Kagan wrote that it was ‘not necessarily wrong or invalid’ for judges to ‘try to mold and steer the law’ to achieve social ends, but warned that such rulings must be rooted in legal principles to be accepted by society and endure,” The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write. Wrote Kagan: “U.S. Supreme Court justices live in the knowledge that they have the authority to command or to block great social, political and economic change. … At times, the temptation to wield this power becomes irresistible. The justices, at such times, will attempt to steer the law in order to achieve certain ends and advance certain values. In following this path, the justices are likely to forget both that they are judges and that their court is a court.” ABC’s Ariane de Vogue, on the portion of the speech Kagan didn’t give at an April event where she appeared with Justice Anthony Kennedy: “And some people say the President should appoint the person who has the best relationship and the greatest potential to influence [Justice Kennedy]. So I was thinking, JK,  maybe you could just bring a quicker end to this whole consideration process — not that I’m not really enjoying it — by expressing some view on the question…relieve everybody of the need to guess about this…I won’t even listen. (But did I mention JK and I really go back a long way?)” Intriguing timeline details: “Nearly a month before Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, White House Counsel Bob Bauer called Solicitor General Elena Kagan to tell her that the president wished to consider her for a possible Supreme Court vacancy,” ABC’s Ariane de Vogue and Devin Dwyer report. Still slippery out of the Gulf, as hearings continue on the Hill. ABC’s Jake Tapper: “Though federal regulations require offshore drilling locations to be inspected by the Department of the Interior's Minerals Mining Service every 30 days, those inspections have repeatedly not happened since the Deepwater Horizon site was permitted by MMS in 2001 – including one out of every four months since President Obama's inauguration. ABC News has learned that in the 16 months from January 2009 through April 2010 MMS failed to inspect Deepwater Horizon four times – in May 2009, August 2009, December 2009, and January 2010.”  “Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that federal regulation of offshore drilling had been too lax but that it was premature to say watchdogs underestimated the risks when they approved such projects,” The Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Hughes and Stephen Power report. On the Hill, financial regulatory reform stumbles toward a finish line, with a cloture vote expected Wednesday. The New York Times editorial: “It is a bad sign, as the Senate enters the home stretch on financial regulatory reform, that there are so many unresolved issues since weaknesses and ambiguities in the legislation play into the hands of opponents of reform at this late date. It is especially disturbing that the vital area of reform — the regulation of derivatives trading — is being left to last.” 
The Kicker: “I sinned against God, my wife and my family by having a mutual relationship with a part-time member of my staff.” — Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., choosing a very good day to announce that he would resign from the House.  “They'll know when you've gone native.” — Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., giving ABC News a tour of office’s collection of Tennessee knickknacks — and showing off his framed red flannel shirt.
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