For any politician with the usual instincts for self-protection, the lessons of Tuesday’s primaries could not be more clear: This could happen to you.
Arlen Specter lost in Pennsylvania even though the party-switching Democrat was recruited and backed by a sitting president. Rand Paul won in Kentucky even though the Republican was regarded as an eccentric renegade by that state’s political establishment.
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.
The anti-establishment, anti-incumbent fevers on display Tuesday are not new. The ideologically charged, grassroots activists flexing their muscle in this week’s primary showdowns are the same breed as primary voters who four years ago stripped the Democratic nomination away from Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who later won as an independent.
What’s now clear, in a way that wasn’t before, is that these results reflect a genuine national phenomenon, not simply isolated spasms in response to single issues or local circumstances.
This is a stark and potentially durable change in politics. The old structures that protected incumbent power are weakening. New structures, from partisan news outlets to online social networks, are giving anti-establishment politicians access to two essential elements of effective campaigns: publicity and financial support.
In effect, the anti-institutional forces that coalesced in recent years now look like an institutional force of their own.
They beat incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett earlier this month in an intraparty battle in Utah. They beat once-safe Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan in West Virginia.
And on Tuesday night, liberal activists forced Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas into a run-off as the two-term incumbent failed to even come close to the 50 percent threshold needed to secure re-nomination against challenger Bill Halter.
One place where establishment personalities and techniques did see results was in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, where Democrat Mark Critz, a former Hill aide, defeated Republican Tim Burns in a special election for the late Rep. John Murtha’s seat. Both parties in Washington had poured resources into the race, and Bill Clinton campaigned for Critz.
Overall, however, outsiders on right and left alike felt they had reason to crow.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has positioned himself as leader of the anti-establishment forces in his own party, announced vindication because of Rand Paul’s victory:
"The Washington establishment threw everything they had at him and yet he prevailed,” DeMint said. “Rand's victory is part of an American awakening that is taking place across the country as people embrace the principles of freedom that are the backbone of our country.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Markos Moulitsas of the of the liberal Daily Kos blog endorsed DeMint’s view that establishment power is losing its grip.
“The old structures have been eroding, ever since we knocked Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic Party in 2006,” he said. “We've only gotten more sophisticated in the subsequent years, while insurgents on the right have joined the party. There's no doubt that the inability of both parties to govern effectively has played a role, but we're building a world in which people can bypass their parties' institutional forces and make up their own minds on who to support.”
Viewed in one light, there is something cathartic about a house-cleaning in which voters show their independence and skepticism about the most cynical practices of Washington. Specter, after all, was an 80-year-old mascot for opportunism, who broke his pledge to stay a Republican simply to save his skin. Bennett had reneged on his own promise to term-limit himself. Mollohan, first elected in 1982, was damaged by allegations of self-dealing.
Challengers don’t need help of the Republican National Committee or Democratic National Committee to shake loose small donations anymore. They can simply use the web or email lists of hungry activists. They don't need the RNC or DNC for get-out-the-vote help either. They have MoveOn.org and the Tea Party network.
They also don't need a visit from Barack Obama or Dick Cheney to whip up attention from party activists. They have Rachel Maddow on MSNBC or Glenn Beck on Fox - a much more efficient way of reaching committed activists.
But the cumulative results of the primaries will likely make a hard-to-govern capital even more treacherous. Politicians now on-notice about the power of activists on their flanks will be less inclined to find compromises in the center, and they barely did even before Tuesday.
And they will be under no illusions that Washington can provide institutional support when they are in a jam. The support of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee did nothing to help Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate who got boxed out of the GOP Senate nomination by conservative Marco Rubio. Nor did the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian, help veteran state politician Trey Grayson in his fight against Paul.
To the contrary, Grayson’s rout has weakened McConnell.
Richard Viguerie, who first mobilized conservative activists two generations ago as a direct-mail pioneer, said it is time for McConnell to go as Senate leader.
“The elections results are a massive repudiation of McConnell and the Republican congressional leadership, which aggressively supported Grayson,” Viguerie said in a statement. “Coming on the heels of Senator Robert Bennett's defeat in Utah and the Republican Senatorial Committee's previous support for Charlie Crist in Florida, it is clear that many Washington, D.C. GOP leaders are enormously out of touch with the base of the Republican Party, grassroots conservatives.”
The tea party’s defeat of Grayson suggests a newfound ability to mobilize effectively by a movement that previously had been more like an anti-government, anti-Obama primal scream. This is scary to Democrats because it’s harnessing a sort of mirror image of the force that got Obama elected, and scary to Republicans because of its willingness to be very un-Republican, to throw off the tradition of electoral deference in the GOP that has tended to squelch dissent.
Democrats are used to messier primaries, but with Specter’s defeat, the lesson for the left is that it helps to have a credible alternative to the establishment candidate – in this case, a former admiral in Rep. Joe Sestak. Democrats moved quickly to close ranks around him, with many saying he’ll be a superior candidate this fall compared to Specter.
Levana Layendecker, communications director of Democracy for America, a group founded by former presidential candidate and DNC chairman Howard Dean, suggested there is unrest on the left that is similar to, if milder than, what’s happening on the right.
“Since 2008 a lot of people got their hopes up for some major change,” she said. “Obviously there was a huge appetite for that in the country based on the election results. I think that this election is about the people who feel that either that change isn’t happening fast enough or that that change isn’t happening the way they hoped it would.”
Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, the leading tea-party group, said the process of decentralization away from the party establishment began with Obama’s victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. That was early evidence that establishments forces didn’t have the clout they once did.
He doesn’t think the GOP will co-opt tea partiers or conservative activist groups.
“I do think there is sustainability to this movement,” Kibbe said. “Part of it is decentralization. They don’t need to rely on three networks or two political parties to find out what’s going on. They can go out and find out for themselves.”