NEW YORK -- Christine O'Donnell's dramatic come-from-nowhere victory in the Delaware Senate Republican primary could easily be interpreted as proof of the potency of a Sarah Palin endorsement
and a Tea Party imprimatur. But it also can be viewed as a repudiation of her establishment opponent, 71-year-old nine-term Congressman Michael Castle, perhaps the last old-fashioned GOP moderate in the House. But how large a national trend can be drawn from a primary in which fewer than 60,000 Republicans voted?
Or take the way that the pontificating pundits on cable TV over-hyped the cosmic meaning of maverick real-estate magnate Carl Paladino
's lopsided victory over shopworn former Congressman Rick Lazio in a low-turnout primary for the worthless New York GOP gubernatorial nomination. Sure, Paladino is a (how shall we put this politely?) different-drummer candidate with his seeming love for pornographic e-mails and his propensity for odd statements like denouncing a Jewish state legislative leader as the "anti-Christ." But everyone knows that Paladino has about as much chance as the disgraced Eliot Spitzer
of being elected governor in November – Andrew Cuomo, the state attorney general, is virtually certain to win in a landslide in this Democratic state.
Ever since 1842 when the first direct primary was conducted in Crawford County
, Pa., these intra-party battles have launched countless glib theories about the mood of the electorate. This year's cliché is, of course, the anti-incumbent uprising (the most recent casualty was Sen. Lisa Murkowsk
i in last month's Alaska GOP primary) and the ideological fervor of Tea Party activists. While there have been internecine Democratic battles (mostly notably Joe Sestak's upending of 80-year-old, party-switching, five-term Sen. Arlen Specter
in Pennsylvania), most incumbents in Barack Obama's party have been obsessed with unemployment after the November elections rather than embarrassment in a primary. (Speaking of politicians beyond embarrassment, the scandal-scarred Charlie Rangel
romped home Tuesday night, proving that not all troubled congressional incumbents are automatically doomed).
Tuesday marked the dramatic end of the primary season -- except for (warning: pedantic detail ahead) Saturday's balloting in Hawaii. For those determined to impose a one-size-fits-all narrative on the 2010 primaries, it is worth recalling that when Illinois voters went to the polls on Groundhog Day
, Scott Brown had not been yet been seated in the Senate and health care reform was stalled in Congress. Back on June 8, the biggest day on the primary calendar, when 12 states nominated candidates, Democrats still nurtured the hope that the economy would begin to rebound before Election Day.
That is the problem with cosmic generalizations based on primary results -- the evidence is spread over seven months in an era when tweets-get-moving political junkies grow impatient if there is not a new paradigm every three hours. Republicans have been buoyed by calculations showing that 4 million more GOP voters had voted in party primaries
(through the end of August) than Democrats. If the Republicans win control of Congress, this figure will be seen as a leading indicator of Democratic disinterest and despair. But if the Democrats manage to beat the expectations game in November, this primary turnout number will be quickly forgotten or filed away as a meaningless blip.
Many panicked Democratic incumbents have been playing the rush-to-the-center game for months -- they all but pretend that they were in an undisclosed secure location when dastardly imposters cast unpopular congressional votes for the economic stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade energy legislation. But if Democrats cannot, in reality, hide from their records, then Republicans cannot ignore the potential wrath of the Tea Party movement and other conservative activists who consider compromise to be an anathema.
Primaries have given the Republicans many Senate nominees who are so unyieldingly conservative that they probably worry that making left turns at intersections might betray their principles. It is telling (and gleefully highlighted by Democrats) that the first TV ad sponsored by the independent expenditures arm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee was on behalf of Rand Paul in Kentucky. This is a state where Obama won only 41 percent of the vote in 2008 – and had establishment candidate Trey Grayson
corralled the GOP primary back in May, Kentucky would not be in play.
Mid-September primaries -- God's gift to incumbents -- make it hard for challengers to pivot for the November campaign. With just seven weeks until the midterm election, it is nearly impossible for O'Donnell to air brush away the scars from the scorched-earth primary campaign -- especially the charges that she has been living off campaign donations
and her inaccurate claims about her college graduation (she finally received her degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University just two weeks ago). The Delaware contest for the seat held for more than three decades by Joe Biden may prompt more discussion of the fervor of O'Donnell's opposition to all forms of teenage sexuality
than, say, her critique of Obama's health care legislation.
Party leaders -- who have a traditional interpretation of electability based on fundraising prowess, poll numbers and insider pedigree -- are not always omniscient. New Hampshire voters Tuesday chose a Republican (the slow count was still unfinished as of Wednesday morning) to take on vulnerable two-term liberal Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. In 2006 Rahm Emanuel, then at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, publicly rebuffed Shea-Porter's candidacy and put the muscle of the national party behind one of her primary opponents. Not only did Shea-Porter defeat her DCCC-anointed opponent in the primary, but she also confounded the experts by knocking off a GOP incumbent in November.
Most political theories (and I am borrowing an early 1990s insight from journalist and friend Alan Ehrenhalt
) focus on the attitudes and the demands of voters. But the supply side of the equation -- the characteristics and beliefs of the candidates themselves -- often get lost in these abstract models.
For all the fire and fury directed at the Obama White House and the Democratic congressional majorities, Republican primary voters have made their path to victory in November that much more difficult by nominating idiosyncratic Senate candidates like Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul and, yes, Sharron Angle in Nevada. Such ideologically intense GOP nominees promise to fiercely challenge the mores of Washington -- but first they have to get past the voters in the muddled middle in November.