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Primary challenges

My hunch is that this isn't an entirely good-faith reading of my post on primary challenges, but to be clear: It can be the case that party activists were right to challenge Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter and that those primary challenges pushed Lieberman and Specter further away from their parties.

Specter and Lieberman have confirmed everything their skeptics have said about them. Lieberman has become, if not a Republican, then at least an anti-Democrat. And Specter has become a party-line liberal. The primary challenges were, in other words, correct. Those senators did not deserve the faith and support of their party. But those primary challenges also broke whatever historical or pragmatic attachment Lieberman and Specter had to their traditional political homes. They changed their political incentives and their emotional loyalties. However disloyal they were before, the near-death experience made them worse.

Lieberman endorsed McCain and will likely vote, and maybe even filibuster, against health-care reform. Heterodox as he was, neither was likely before Lamont's challenge. Specter switched parties and is advocating for a public option, neither of which would have happened in the absence of Pat Toomey's campaign. That's not an argument for or against primary challenges. Indeed, it's not even anything that the people who mount primary challenges don't know. The hope is that challenger wins the actual election. The risk is that the incumbent wins and is now even worse than before.

That's a perfectly fair risk to take. I supported Lamont's challenge and, were my political opinions different, would probably support Toomey's challenge. But this is where we're at, and there's no real sense in denying it.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 4, 2009; 9:25 AM ET
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Lamont's challenge to Lieberman was the event that destroyed the conventional wisdom and signaled that it was okay for Democrats to run as Democrats and not run from facing down Republicans on Iraq et al. Without it, there are fewer Democrats winning in 06 and 08, and we don't even deal with health care to the extent we are now.

Posted by: flounder2 | November 4, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Sorry Ezra, but you wrote the following:

"If Democrats have 60 votes, it's because conservative activists kept running primary challengers against Arlen Specter. If they fall short, it's likely to be because liberal activists ran a primary challenge against Joe Lieberman."

There are an awful lot of other ways you could interpret that event, but you're ascribing causality for the potential failure of health care reform to Lamont's primary challenge. How about this? Democratic leadership's failure to properly support Lamont in 2006 allowed Lieberman to win creating a real snake in the grass for the Democrats. If people like Clinton and Gore had been out in front supporting Lamont from the moment he won the primary, then the results may have been very different.

Or how about this? If the senate leadership were doing a good job making Lieberman more conscious of potential consequences for his actions, he might fall in line.

There's a lot of reasons that Lieberman is behaving like an unprincipled jerk and it may eventually tank health care reform. Maybe the primary played some partial role in that, but to ascribe lone causality (which was perhaps unintentional, but either way, what you did) to that is just ridiculous.

Posted by: Matt40 | November 4, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

You're forgetting that Sestak's primary challenge against Specter is pushing Specter is pushing Specter *even further* to the left.

Primary challenges do not push candidates in a specific direction. They push the candidate in the direction in which they have an opening. Specter could not plausibly out-conservative Toomey and still get elected. He *can* try to out-liberal Sestak.

Lieberman's greatest source of leverage was his ability to rally conservatives to his side, so when he faced a primary challenge, those were the people he was going to take advantage of, and it was something that kept him as a power broker after he was re-elected.

Posted by: constans | November 4, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Two points. First, running a primary against Lieberman *did* force him to campaign closer to the center of his party. Remember all those contrite speeches about how he understood what the voters of CT wanted him to do about the war? Unfortunately, he's now forgotten all that - which is what's really remarkable about him.

He's been taking positions opposed not only by a majority of Dems in his state, but by a majority of all CT voters. E.g., he campaigned for John McCain, who was absolutely drubbed in Connecticut - lost by 20 points. He's now out in front against the public option, which polls above 60% in CT.

It's one of the boldest/craziest things I've seen. I almost wonder if he's become convinced by the last few years that he can't be beaten. Maybe he thinks time proved him right on the surge and it will prove him right on everything else as well. Or maybe he just thinks he'll always be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

Regardless, this is a key difference between Specter and Lieberman for the moment - Specter is moving closer to the political center in his state while Lieberman is falling away. I suspect that the composition of the Senate and party politics will conspire to hold Specter in the D camp if he somehow wins. It will be fascinating to see what Lieberman does as 2012 approaches. I will be mightily surprised if he doesn't start taking positions closer to those of the median CT voter.

Posted by: Sophomore | November 4, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I don't often disagree with you, Ezra, but this time I think the situation is more complicated than your conclusion. Lieberman lost his primary and was subsequently victorious only because of Republican support. During the primary challenge, Lieberman emphasized what a wonderful, progressive Democrat he is. Now he has to rely on the support of the CT Republicans. On the other hand, Specter ran from the Republican party because he was assured a primary defeat. His transformation into a Wellstone-Democrat has happened only because he is facing a primary challenge from the left which he can win. The real lesson is that if you defeat an incumbent in a primary or make that defeat a certainty, you will drive him/her to the other party.

Posted by: marvyT | November 4, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

"First, running a primary against Lieberman *did* force him to campaign closer to the center of his party. Remember all those contrite speeches about how he understood what the voters of CT wanted him to do about the war?"

This is worth emphasizing. If anything pushed Lieberman into reflexive opposition to the Democratic agenda, it wasn't simply Lamont's challenge -- he responded throughout the primary campaign just as Specter has to his primaries challenges. That is, he moved back toward the mainstream of the party whose nomination he sought. In Specter's case, he moved right, decided he couldn't win anyway, switched parties, and then moved left. Lieberman spent the primary talking about how no one wanted to end the war more than him.

If anything fits the theory you're trying to advance, it's not the existence of Lamont's challenge, it's the reality of Lamont's *win*. In any reasonable circumstance, Lieberman losing a partisan primary to Lamont would've meant that Lamont would be in the Senate right now and Lieberman would be on K Street. Had Lieberman won the primary, there's no reason to think he'd be so heterodox now, because he would know (like Specter following his 2004 challenge) that all eyes would be on him and he could easily face a stronger challenge in 2010.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | November 4, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Ezra's hypothesis is pretty easy to test. If he's right, a couple dozen republican representatives and senators will be joining the democratic party next year.

Posted by: paul314 | November 4, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

They aren't the same situations. Conneticut is a pretty liberal state where Lamont would have been a typical senator. While Pennslyvania is not a very conservative state where Specter fit in well. Toomey trying to oust Specter would be equivalent to Lamont tring to oust A moderate democrat is a conservative leaning state like Louisiana or Nebraska

Posted by: NMc1 | November 4, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

I think our friend Ezra was referring to Joe Sestak, who as far as Specter is posing the clear and present danger to his political survival in the Democrat primary, thus Specter is now a born again liberal suddenly, in a way that he wont be after he wins. Count on it.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 4, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

"I almost wonder if he's become convinced by the last few years that he can't be beaten."

That may be, but I think he also believes that he won't be punished by his party leadership. After all, he campaigned with McCain and (contrary to what he said he'd do) went beyond praising McCain to actually trashing Obama. Nevertheless, he was forgiven and wooed and rewarded with a coveted committee chairmanship. He -- with good reason -- doesn't believe that Harry Reid would dare take away his gavel and toss him out of the Democratic caucus (which is exactly what Reid should do). Lieberman surely thinks the threat of his changing parties gives him leverage -- never mind that he could never get as much attention or power as a moderate Republican, and would face an even steeper climb to reelection.

Posted by: Janine1 | November 4, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

What Matt40 said. I think Ezra is getting a bad rap, but the statement Ezra is being reamed for can be read a few ways, some not that good for Ezra. I think he has clarified his position, but doing bloggerhead tv with Jane, Rachael, or Christy would be a great way to clear the air.

Posted by: srw3 | November 4, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Ezra -- There was never any dispute that an unsuccessful primary challenge might make an unprincipled politician even worse -- e.g., vindictive. But that just means the primary challenge was warranted in the first place and should have been undertaken. So any suggestion that a primary challenge per se was to blame for the lack of principle, and thus should not be attempted, needed a response. Beyond that, I appreciate the clarification and apologize for the snark. Offered in good faith.

Posted by: Scarecrow3 | November 4, 2009 8:08 PM | Report abuse

So it depends on the probability of the challenge succeeding in dislodging the incumbent.

I would not support a challenge to Lieberman if it had a tiny chance of success and a big chance of making him a lot more harmful.

As I recall, however, Lieberman didn't win by that much. And next time a Democrat surely might beat him, because over his current term he's added some extremely harmful new red state things while needing re-election in a quite blue state.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 4, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

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