There were clear winners and clear losers in Tuesday’s primaries—and, yes, there was a clear trend.
The winners were Democratic insurgents and Republican outsiders—and, intriguingly, labor unions and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
The losers were incumbents and insiders on both sides—including President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Minority Leader John Boehner.
But the biggest loser of all was the notion that the real action this year is on the Republican side of the primary ballot.
In fact, it is all over the ballot. And that offers Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, both causes for concern and roadmaps for the rest of the election cycle. That’s where the trend that matters comes in: 2010 is shaping up as a year when populist anti-Washington sentiment (with a healthy layer of anti-bank and anti-big business messaging) plays well, no matter what party label is on a candidate. That’s something Democrats must understand if they hope to prevail come November.
Let’s begin by breaking the races down:
Pennslyvania Congressman Joe Sestak’s victory was the "headline" story of the night and it confirmed that Sestak was right when he calculated that Pennsylvania Democrats—who has have been voting against Arlen Specter since 1980, when he was the Republican senator they could never quite oust, would relish an opportunity to do the deed in a Democratic primary. Specter’s party switch was celebrated in Washington, and even in the Pennsylvania capitol of Harrisburg, but it remained a tough sell with Democratic voters at the grassroots. Sestak’s impressive 54-46 victory was indeed confirmed that, and his election night declaration that “this is what democracy looks like” was less a message for Specter than for the Democratic party establishment that—including President Obama—that tried to sell a five-term Republican senator (albeit a reasonably liberal one) to Democratic voters.
In Arkansas, Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, a centrist with conservative and corporate tendencies, also offended the base. She fared slightly better than Specter, gaining more votes that her chief challenger in the primary, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who won essential support from organized labor and progressive groups. But Arkansas is a southern state where a runoff election is required if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote. (The trend was running 33 percent for Lincoln, 42 percent for Halter.) So Lincoln and Halter will face one another in a June 8 contests that will be a bitter battle between national Democrats who are backing a lame incumbent—including President Obama and former President Clinton—and a populist insurgency that will have all the labor support it needs. Lincoln could still win but, at this point, she can only prevail by turning the race so ugly that she destroys her own chances in November.