Except for a little clean-up duty in Louisiana and Hawaii, the rowdy and random 2010 midterm primary season concluded this week, with more upstarts and upsets. Now, the remaining general election candidates, not to mention the leaders of both major political parties, are trying to discern what in the world the voters are trying to tell them – or whether there even are any coherent messages to be gleaned in this grueling election season.
The short answer is that voters are certainly trying to tell the political class a thing or two, but it's not always clear what voters are trying to say. For one thing, the American electorate does not speak with one voice. For another, voter impulses can move in two different directions at once. This is often the case, but 2010 is truly the Year of Mixed Messages.
"Fix the economy
!" voters are telling their elected officials in Washington. Yet the most tepid attempts to reign in Wall Street and corporate excess draw paranoid accusations of the would-be "socialists
" in our midst – if not in the Oval Office itself.
The lack of a consistent narrative has left even political professionals at a loss. University of Alaska political science professor Clive Thomas, for instance, closely follows the politics of his state and yet was baffled by the results of the recent Republican senatorial primary that cost Lisa Murkowski her Senate seat. When asked by a local reporter about this unexpected result, Professor Thomas spoke
with disarming candor: "I'm confused," he conceded.
He's hardly the only one. The night of the Alaska upset, chief NBC political director Chuck Todd
spoke for many when he said of 2010: "It's been a wild, wild year so far." Making sense of it isn't easy, but voters, candidates, and political observers will continue to try:
Lesson 1: All Politics is Local:
In November, Scott McAdams
, the Democratic mayor of Sitka (population 8,889) will square off against Joe Miller
, an obscure Republican lawyer from Fairbanks, whose sole previous political experience was running – and losing – an election for state legislature. Until a month ago, not even political professionals in Alaska had heard of either man outside their own communities. Ten weeks from now, the winner will be a United States senator.
How did this happen? For starters, every well-known Democrat in Alaska thought incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski was unbeatable – and so nobody prominent bothered to seek the nomination. On the Republican side, former Gov. Sarah Palin lent her name to Miller's campaign, which allowed him access to money from the coast-to-coast network of Tea Party activists. For Palin, it wasn't only local, it was personal: She had defeated Murkowski's father when she ran for governor four years ago, and wasn't ready to let the state's Republican Party return to its nepotistic ways.
Lesson 2: All Politics is National:
Miller, who appears to have dethroned Murkowski, won by characterizing her as "Washington aristocracy," a term of art that referred both to the nepotistic way she got the job (appointed by her own father) and to her discipleship of Sen. Ted Stevens, a proud dispenser of Alaska-bound pork-barrel spending. Miller also scored points with Alaska conservatives by criticizing Murkowski's support of the 2008 bank bailout bill and for not vowing to repeal the health care bill.
This anti-Washington theme
is being used coast-to-coast this year, especially as regards the vote to keep the financial institutions afloat. It's been used by Republicans to unseat other Republicans, by Republicans poised to run against Democrats in November – and sometimes Democrats are tooting this horn, notwithstanding the fact that President Obama and his economic team repeatedly credit the TARP bailout (enacted under Republican leadership and with bipartisan support late in 2008) with sparing the nation a second Great Depression. In Missouri, Democratic senatorial candidate Robin Carnahan asserts
in ads aimed at Republican Rep. Roy Blunt: "In Washington, they are calling it "Blunt's Bailout.'" This is an invented epitaph, but a telling one.
Lesson 3: Money Talks
"Money," legendary California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh once said, "is the mother's milk of politics." That is especially true in the primary season. Take the Georgia governor's race, for instance. Eight years ago, voters turned Roy Barnes out of office, but when Barnes raised $2.2 million by February – more than twice as much as his four competitors combined – the race was all but over.
Or take Linda McMahon, the Republican nominee for a vacant U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, who brings the following qualifications for high public office: (1) Along with her husband, she ran World Wrestling Entertainment; (2) She made a fortune in WWE. It's the second qualification that counts. That's all the qualifications she needed. McMahon easily trumped a three-person Republican primary field after dropping a cool $22 million
of her own money. She's dropped hints she plans to spend another $30 million against Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the general election.
In Florida, health care tycoon Rick Scott won the Republican gubernatorial nomination, besting Bill McCollum, a 66-year-old attorney general and well-known congressman who enjoyed the support of the Florida GOP. Scott has never held elective office; he oversaw a health care conglomerate found guilty of the biggest Medicare fraud in U.S. history; and he skipped the last debate of the campaign – a planned televised event five days before the election -- sending his mother at the last minute. But Scott spent $50 million
on television ads, mailings, get-out-the-vote drives, polling, and staff – and he stunned the Florida political establishment.
Scott joins a spate of self-financed candidates
ranging in recent years from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey to Sen. Herb Kohl in Wisconsin and two very live 2010 candidates, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California. It's easy to parody these self-funders, and to mount telling political attacks against them. This is especially true of Whitman, who spent upwards of $90 million of her own money just getting the nomination. But she won. And in this sour political environment, antipathy for career politicians and suspicions of the special interest money that floods into traditional Democratic and Republican campaigns has apparently made voters more receptive to the argument – announced overtly by Rick Scott – that self-funders are better because they already have their money and are beyond the reach of those who would corrupt them.
Lesson 4: Money Doesn't Mean a Thing.
Joe Miller was outspent
several times over by Lisa Murkowski, demonstrating that in some states, television is not yet king. Even in states where it is, money wasn't always decisive. Billionaire Jeff Greene spent $23 million
of his own money in the Florida Democratic senatorial primary. He lost to Kendrick Meek, who spent less than $5 million, money raised the old-fashioned way.
A detailed study of self-funding candidates shows that Greene is hardly alone. According to the National Institute of Money in State Politics, candidates who rely on their personal fortunes succeed in winning office just over 10 percent of the time
In California, Fiorina spent some $5 million of her own money convincing GOP primary voters that she is conservative enough. She succeeded, and now faces an opponent, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, with twice as much in her campaign coffers. But Boxer's real advantage: The campaign is taking place in a state where Democrats enjoy a 2.3 million voter edge in party registration. Even Jesse Unruh would admit that is more important than cash.
And Roy Barnes? Well, he knows the other side, too. As sitting governor in 2002, Barnes outspent Republican challenger Sonny Perdue
$20 million to $3 million – and lost. This week, in New Hampshire's Republican senatorial primary, Tea Party favorite Ovide Lamontagne closed like gangbusters in the final days of the race, despite spending only $400,000, nearly overtaking Kelly Ayotte, the establishment favorite who vastly outspent him. "It's not how much money you have," Lamontagne said
as the votes were being counted. "It's the message."
Lesson 5: It's (Once Again) the Economy, Stupid
In 1992, the American people turned out of office a president who, 19 months earlier had registered an astounding 89 percent job approval rating
in a Gallup Poll. They did this with the encouragement of a Democratic candidate who vowed to focus "like a laser" on the economy and the needs and worries of the middle class. The presumption, encouraged by Bill Clinton, was that President George H.W. Bush was out of touch with everyday Americans – at a time the U.S. economy was a lot more robust than it is today.
The first election cycle in the Age of Obama took place in 2009, and its lessons were perhaps easy to miss at the time. In Virginia, Democrats focused their fire on Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell's past association with Pat Robertson, with a paper he wrote in graduate school, and with his anti-abortion views. McDonnell rarely talked about any of that. His campaign slogan was simple, "Bob's for jobs."
"After a prolonged recession that has taken a heavy toll in every corner of America, I see men and women, young and old, too tired for hope," says pollster John Della Volpe, a particularly astute political observer. "They're embittered, literally with tears in their eyes and fire in their souls. Yes, fire."
The chronic unemployment and underemployment now afflicting America is hitting more people
than is commonly believed. To some, the voters' palpable anger is misplaced.
"The people, high on Tea Party caffeine, are yelping like they always do in times of business cycle downward spirals," says Terry Michael, executive director of the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. "Our home equity is in the toilet and our 401(k)'s are headed south. Our personal economic security is screwed up, and we spoiled, fed-on-entitlements baby boomers need somebody to blame. Since we can't blame ourselves – for our irrationally exuberant hallucination that things always go up, but never come down – let's blame those idiots in Washington. Those idiots who we sent to Washington."
Lesson 6: We're Tired of War
Last month, President Obama announced that American combat operations in Iraq have ended, but despite the network footage of mechanized U.S. combat brigades rolling back across the Kuwait border, some 50,000 troops remain stationed in Iraq in an open-ended deployment. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan began nine years ago – and no end is in sight.
Terry Michael, writing in Reason magazine
, offers the view that Democratic congressional candidates can do little to stop the mass midterm defections of fiscally conservative independents who believe that the Democrats cannot be trusted on the economy. Instead of playing the hoary faux-populist class-warfare card, liberal Democrats should follow the courage of their convictions and push the president to end the war in Afghanistan.
That would take a level of courage seemingly beyond the Democrats' ken. On Wednesday, upon learning that Kelly Ayotte would be his November opponent in the New Hampshire Senate race, Democrat Paul Hodes proclaimed, "I am running for the United States Senate to be an independent voice for the people of New Hampshire, focused on creating jobs for middle-class families -- not a voice for Sarah Palin's far-right wing agenda, the Wall Street banks, the Big Oil companies, and the other special interests attempting to trample our democracy."
This rap would be a little more believable if it wasn't being parroted by Democratic candidates coast-to-coast. It's a rap so shopworn it's not even rallying the Democratic Party's base. The polls suggest that despite his health care success, the dominant liberal wing of the party increasingly sees Obama as a moderate – and his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan is the reason. Thus does the head of the Democratic Party alienate his own base – and independents – simultaneously.
"Swing voters, unaffiliated voters, 'independents' are voting against the Democrats' spending spree just as they voted against the unending occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq -- and, hence, against Republicans -- in 2006 and 2008," says Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform.
Lesson 7: We're Tired of Taxes, Too.
At his press conference last week, President Obama looked positively flustered at the notion that Republicans weren't paying a larger political price for derailing his plan to raise taxes on American families earning more than $250,000 a year.
But raising taxes has emerged as perhaps the most tangible issue in the 2010 campaign
– and it's not cutting the Democrats' way. Increased taxes, a new health care requirement, coupled with government takeovers of various companies all play into a Republican story line that having both houses of Congress and the White House in the care of a party that gravitates toward Big Government is not a good idea.
Some Democrats feel this way, too, and a whole lot of independents.
"Persuadable voters – the center-right and center-left (the only ones left with open minds) – want a return of the Clinton hybrid: fiscal conservatism, cultural moderation, lean and effective progressive government aimed at helping the middle class," says Lanny J. Davis, former White House special counsel to President Clinton. "It may be too late for congressional Democrats to return to that Clintonian message by their actions – but not too late for the president to do so by his message."
That point works both ways, though. The George W. Bush-inspired cuts on income tax rates had the effect of repealing a tax increase in the top brackets orchestrated by none other than Bill Clinton. So when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plot ways to force a vote on the Obama-backed tax increase
, they, too, can say they are channeling Bill Clinton.
Lesson 8: Sometimes Voting Can be Cathartic.
All year long, every time the Republicans nominated a Sharron Angle or Rand Paul or – worst of all! – Christine O'Donnell, the Democrats, the media
, and even some establishment Republicans would wring their hands and tut-tut that at the hour of their all-but-certain victory, the unwashed conservatives in the Tea Party set were doing themselves and their party in.
This might well prove to be the case on Nov. 2. But even in this case, some movement conservatives say there is a method to their madness. And in that sense, perhaps 2010 is not shaping up like either 1994 or 1982 – the two midterm elections it is most often compared to – but, rather, like 1964
, when conservatives went down swinging, choosing at their San Francisco convention a presidential nominee who had no chance of winning, but whose conservatism was above question. Thus did Barry Goldwater go down to thorough, but not ignominious, defeat. Sure, he lost in a landslide, but out of that Phoenix rose . . . Ronald Reagan.
"In your heart, you know he's right," went the conservatives' slogan that year. "In your guts, you know he's nuts," some liberals countered derisively. And so one thing voters are telling us this year is that they think Christine O'Donnell and Rand Paul and Sharron Angle may sound nuts to Democrats and the mainstream media, but their supporters think they are Right – and right. And even if they lose in November, it sure felt good for a while.
And what voters in both parties share in 2010 is a sense of discontentment, a sometimes ill-defined itch that they tried to scratch in the voting booth.
"I think they want politicians to know that they're unhappy and ready to toss out anyone who doesn't provide results," says Ken Collier, a thoughtful political scientist at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. "I don't think they have any idea exactly what they want, but they're ready to let us know that they're not pleased."