“It started as a slow rumble in the middle of summer and now it’s running at a full roar,” Brian Williams intoned during the opening minutes of Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News, setting up the mainstream meme about Tuesday’s elections, which went something like: we are all Tea Partiers now. It was, as a Politico headline said, a “Shot Heard Rand the World,” aimed right at the heart of Washington, D.C., by the archetypal Angry Opthalmologist.
In one of Fox’s election-night wrap-ups, it was all Rand Paul and his lopsided victory over the Mitch McConnell-approved Trey Grayson for Kentucky’s GOP Senate candidate. Followed, in quick succession with smaller visuals, by the results from a galaxy far, far away, where races in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and, oh, yeah, Kentucky itself (where a more progressive but barely mentioned Democrat beat out the centrist favorite to face Paul in November) suggested that the public continues to see the GOP as a discredited rump.
What we really saw in last night’s election were Democrats who chose, against their Beltway leaders’ advice, a more liberal Dem over a Republican-lite pseudo-Dem every time. Senator Blanche Lincoln, for example, is a closeted Republican who squeaked by Bill Halter by only two points in the Arkansas Democratic primary, forcing a run-off that favors her challenger. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a truly closeted Republican (who jauntily insists he was a closeted Democrat before that), lost to progressive Joe Sestak by much larger margin than expected, 54 to 46.
Well, as most media pundits have vigorously prepared the ground for us to believe, these results can be explained away by anti-incumbent fever—but a fever that strikes only one way. If you’re angry about the government, you must be a Tea Partier, since only Tea Party protests get national coverage (unlike, say, the much larger anti-war rallies during the Bush years). But there was no incumbent in the race that so many commentators designated the bellwether, the special election in the late John Murtha’s conservative district. Indeed, though Republican businessman Tim Burns and former Murtha aide Mark Critz were virtually tied in pre-election polls, many in the media excitedly talked about a “Massachusetts-style” upheaval, in which a long-held Democratic seat gets flipped by a little-known conservative who grazes only on grassroots. But as it turned out, of course, Critz trounced Burns, 53 to 45.
True, Critz is pro-life and pro-gun, but it was not, as Politico’s Jim Vanderhei tried to spin it on Wednesday’s Morning Joe, somehow really a victory for Republicans. Joe Scarborough—joined by Pat Buchanan, fer Reagan’s sake—simply laughed at such an obvious Republican talking point designed to sugarcoat the results. Critz isn’t gung-ho for health care reform, but he isn’t dunking tea bags in the hot water of demanding its repeal. Instead, he’s been calling for government-funded jobs programs and re-regulation of Wall Street banks.
Meanwhile, back at the glam Tea Party that is Rand Paul’s Kentucky, the national media had barely a word to say about those Democratic primaries. But guess what? Not only did the more progressive Democrat, Jack Conway, beat the more centrist Dem, Dan Mongiardo, but the number of Democratic voters Tuesday night dwarfed Republican turnout, 453,520 to 331,522. Mongiardo might have lost, but he actually pulled in more votes than the mighty Paul, at 224,989 to 206,812.
As TPM’s Evan McMorris-Santoro notes,“Nowhere else will the battle between the progressive left and the hard-core tea party right be clearer than” in the Conway/Paul race. As attorney general, Conway refused under great pressure to sue the federal government over Obamacare, while the anti-mandate Libertarian Paul campaigned saying it’s unconstitutional. In the general election, his extreme positions—like coming out against of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as well as calling for the dismantling of the departments of agriculture and education—might confirm the growing public perception of theTea Party as ridiculous, and maybe even scary. (For scary, see Rachel Maddow’s Wednesday night interview with Paul.)
Similarly, according to my Blue Grass sources, the fact that first-term Democratic congressman John Yarmuth will face a Tea Party candidate, Todd Lally, in November makes the liberal, Jewish Yarmuth a shoo-in for re-election. He represents mostly Louisville and its suburbs and, according to my Louisville born-and-raised husband (who, full disclosure, once worked for a magazine Yarmuth started), “Louisvillians think of Tea Partiers as noisy, messy, obstreperous yahoos, not justified patriots.”
But it is understandable that the mass-media brain simply can’t focus on pols who don’t emit that sexy (to the media, anyway) Tea Party sizzle. It’s not that the press like the Tea Party’s know-nothing policies, such as they are. But the press (me included) are enthralled with the spectacle: the signs, the anger, the shouting, the derring-do while in dentures. The TP gives the MSM dramatic conflict at the funnest cartoony level.
The harbinger of Tea Party victories to come that the right is squinting so hard to see in yesterday’s elections is a little like the Libertarianism that some film critics are decrying in the new Russell Crowe vehicle, Robin Hood, which opened a few days before the polls. But that only works if you think of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America as equivalent to the Magna Carta–and I doubt that many contemporary folks do.