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Congressman's Primary Loss Highlights Anti-Incumbent Mood | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Congressman's Primary Loss Highlights Anti-Incumbent Mood

President Obama’s approval ratings have returned to where they were at the end of last summer—54 percent say he’s doing a good job, as opposed to the 44 percent who are disappointed, according to the most recent Washington Post poll.

Approval for the Democrats as the party better prepared to cope with the major issues facing the United States is up, as well. According to the Post poll, which was conducted in late April, 46 percent of Americans say they trust the Democrats, as opposed to just 32 percent who say they trust the Republicans. That compares with a much-narrower 43-37 split three months ago.

Asked which party “best represents your own personal values,” Americans chose the Democrats by a 2-1 margin

So Democratic fortunes would seem to be good.

But...

Consider the response when the Post’s pollster asked: “Right now, are you inclined to vote to re-elect your representative in Congress in the next election or are you inclined to look around for someone else to vote for?”

Only 32 percent said “re-elect.”

A remarkable 57 percent responded that they intended to “look around” for someone else.

That’s the highest level of openness to kicking out incumbents since the fall of 1994, when Republicans took control of the House and Senate from the Democrats.

That's why veteran senators such as Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas—and House members such as Jame Harman in California—are scrambling to beat back serious primary challenges.

Should these Democratic incumbents be scared?

How pronounced in the anti-incumbent mood?

In the first rounds of primaries—in Illinois, Texas, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina—Democratic and Republicans incumbents have been battered, with many winning by far narrower than expected margins.

They kept winning, however, until now.

On Saturday, Utah Republicans rejected veteran Senator Bob Bennett at their state party convention, blocking him from a place on the primary ballot and effectively ending his Senate career.

On Tuesday, West Virginia Democrats rejected Congressman Alan Mollohan, who was seeking a 15th term.  The incumbent had held the seat representing a traditionally Democratic district since 1983, and before that his father had held it from 1969 to 1983. But he lost his primary by a 56-44 margin.

To be sure, Mollohan, who has been plagued by ethics problems, was a weaker incumbent than most. But West Virginia has a stronger history of reelecting even troubled representatives.

So this primary result was significant.

The challenger who beat Mollohan, State Senator Mike Oliverio, ran a smart, edgy campaign that played to the rising anti-incumbent sentiment.

“We all know Congress is broken.,” Oliverio said in his television commercials. “The lobbyists and special interests seem to run the place. And too many members of Congress have been corrupted by inside deals. I think we need to clean house. Require those in Congress to release their tax returns. And freeze congressional pay until we start creating jobs. I approve this message because it’s time for integrity and honor in Congress again.”

That wasn't exactly a Tea Party rant. But it tapped into the most appealing part of that movement's messaging.

With regard to specific issues, Oliverio focused on fears about the mounting federal deficit, expressed support for health care reform while griping about the legislation passed by Congress (which Mollohan supported), complained about cap-and-trade legislation (which Mollohan wavered on) and noisily criticized current trade policies, arguing that:

Our ability to stand strong on economic fronts with organized governments has grown weak with our multi-trillion-dollar borrowing from the Chinese, who are becoming prosperous by selling our citizens goods we once produced in our own country. Our economic policy has become a large part of our foreign policy.

In the United States Congress, I will work to create fairer trade with China and to reduce the debt so that China does not continue to own more of America's finances than Americans do.

Democrats who want to retain their seats this fall would be wise to consider the West Virginia primary race.

The point is not to argue that every contest in every state will focus on the issues. In fact, West Virginia is a particularly distinct state and Mollohan’s circumstance was even more distinct. Additionally, Democrats retain the advantages noted in the Post polling.

But Oliverio’s “Congress is broken” message and his simple reform proposals struck a chord in West Virginia. And there is every reason to believe that they would resonate elsewhere.

Democrats who do not want to lose in November—when their party, as the dominant one in the Congress, has the most at stake—would be wise to pick up on Oliverio’s reform messaging.

Americans may trust Democrats more than Republicans. But, this year, they don't trust Washington—no matter which party is in charge.

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