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No country for primary challenges?

Now that Blanche Lincoln has survived her primary, odds are that the total number of incumbent senators knocked off in primary challenges this year will be ... two. That's not that uncommon of a year. We saw three incumbents lose their primary challenges in 1980. Now, Halter got very close, so things could've shaken out differently in Arkansas. And a few senators are still facing tough races, so the book isn't closed yet. But it's not looking like a historic year for primaries.

Which suggests that things haven't changed as much as some might've thought. The predictions for a wave of primary losses wasn't just about public sentiment. It was also about structural changes. Online fundraising, which made it easier for national money to flow into statewide races. Media-savvy interest groups like the Club for Growth and Firedog Lake and the tea parties that had made primary challenges a large part of their public identity. National, 24/7 media coverage of statewide races, which might've made local issues less important and broader questions more important. But so much as those factors fed into the primary challenges we've seen, they don't seem to have radically upended the security of incumbents. Even in a year that seemed particularly well suited to primary defeats in Senate campaigns, we've not seen a major uptick in successful efforts.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 9, 2010; 9:07 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Comments

Isn't this indicative of exactly the sort of all-or-nothing thinking that so distorts mainstream coverage of the primaries? When you're determining whether the influence of any particular interest has waxed or waned, the question isn't whether Halter, et al, are able to win or lose in a close race. The question is whether his challenge was unusually successful. If previously, incumbents won primaries by wide margins, and now they're winning primaries by narrow margins, it doesn't seem like you can just look at the end result and say the status quo is largely intact.

In other words, this is really a question for the political scientists.

Posted by: WHSTCL | June 9, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

"Which suggests that things haven't changed as much as some might've thought."

This is almost always true. Predictions of seismic shifts in the electorate are almost always overblown. And, in the next election cycle, are proven to be inaccurate.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 9, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

The Netroots took their best shot and missed, again. A narrow loss is still a loss.

Posted by: lol-lol | June 9, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Are you trying to tell us that Rasmussen's polls predicting huge upsets for Democrats, a tidal wave even, are not accurate?

On a more serious note. Do credible people (who know a lot more about this than I do) take Rasmussen's polls seriously? It borders on the incredulous/ridiculous just how skewed their results are compared to everyone else. Weird.

Posted by: JERiv | June 9, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

The real news seems to be that union-backed Bill Halter LOST the primary against moderate incumbent Blanch Lincoln: the union stranglehold is broken and moderation has been embraced by the "base" of the party.

Energizing the much-talked-about "base" now seems to involve dismissing the notions of liberal unionists and progressives in favor of moderate, practical ideas having true appeal to a majority of voters: Lincoln ran on an "anti-Washington" platform and may even need to become even more anti-Washington in order to win in November.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 9, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

"Are you trying to tell us that Rasmussen's polls predicting huge upsets for Democrats, a tidal wave even, are not accurate?"

They may be, or they may not be, but tidal wave is the word for it. Let's say it is a tidal wave, and incumbents are swept out in the predicted electoral apocalypse. After hitting, the tidal wave recedes, and things slowly return to "business as usual". It's rare that there are long-term tidal shifts in politics.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 9, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

"The real news seems to be that union-backed Bill Halter LOST the primary against moderate incumbent Blanch Lincoln: the union stranglehold is broken and moderation has been embraced by the "base" of the party."

I wish this is true since I am not so sure whether reality is that promising. If we continue to see few more losses for Labor, then we can for sure say the trend is improving. So far we have got Arlen Specter and Bill Halter.

(Unless the unchecked demolition of electoral finance rules by Roberts Supreme Court reach crescendo and then even a problematic ally like Labor becomes indispensable).

The Litmus test is whether Dems are able to withstand pressure from Teacher's Union. That is the 'holy grail' for Dems to attain so as to do something good for this country decisively.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 9, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

@UM409: for Dems to attain so as to do something good for this country decisively.

The dems did the best possible thing by not allowing John (get off my lawn) McCain and Sarah (I can see Russia from my back porch) Palin access to the most powerful political positions in the country.

The dems managed to keep a recession from becoming the second great depression.

The dems passed laws against gender discrimination in the workplace.

The dems managed to get billions for community health centers.

Just for starters

Posted by: srw3 | June 9, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

@srw3: "The dems managed to keep a recession from becoming the second great depression."

Theoretically. You can't prove a negative. And unless you can think of something crazy bad that didn't happen that you're willing to give credit to the opposition for, using "didn't happens" as bullet points to your side's credit is, well, kinda bogus.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 9, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Re Rasmussen, see fivethirtyeight.com for lots of very good analysis.

My summary of 538 is that Rasmussen has a significant tilt toward conservative positions but they reduce this tilt as they get close to election time so their polling is quite good close to major elections and quite bad further out (when it could be used to push the media). This suggests they're trying to keep the credibility of being a reputable pollster but make money by letting partisans pay them for slanted polls earlier in races.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | June 9, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

As a disenfranchised Pennsylvania independent, my take is the only way to change the primary system is to make them all open so that voters can cross party lines should they choose. The established parties are loath to do that, what with the clubby atmosphere of the primary system as it is.

Posted by: srpinpgh | June 9, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

"...my take is the only way to change the primary system is to make them all open so that voters can cross party lines should they choose..."

Since the purpose of a primary is for the members of a party to nominate their own candidate, "open" primaries are a very bad idea.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 9, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

"my take is the only way to change the primary system is to make them all open so that voters can cross party lines should they choose."

Open primaries end up with those who want to see your party lose choosing your candidate (sorta how the Republicans got McCain).

Either you get the most unattractive candidate for the general election, or the candidate who most resembles the ideology of the other side. Thus, you'll get primary candidates, running for the nomination of the party you support, appealing to the members of the other party. Open primaries really don't make much sense. And are easily gamed.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 9, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

srw3:

- Keeping this country away from McCain and Palin is sure one good thing. But my vote to Obama was never only for that. It is wrong to interpret it that way otherwise the entire Dem appeal is TINA factor only - there is no alternative. That sucks.

- For me three best decisions of Obama Admin are 'not nationalizing banks, GM rescue and resetting relations with Russia'. For me these are pure, no qualification successes. Everything else is tinted and hence deep unhappiness. (GM rescue, that was classically pro-labor and anti-Capital and still was a right call in given circumstances and decisiveness was there. Obama said GM will turn out fast and it did even when everyone doubted how exist from bankruptcy can be without complications. Agreed, it was Socialism considering the way 'haircut' was given to bond holders; but who says we are ashamed of Socialism? That is the problem of Tea Party. For us what matters is result.)

- HCR: Look at Europe and now we know what a wrong road potentially we are on. The problem and fear is ultimately 'cost controls' in that bill are weaker whereas entitlement expansion for sure, bleeding edge literally. (Culprit - the guy who is writing this Blog, Ezra. I got lured by his beautiful posts and lost my head to think through whenever impeccable pro HCR posts appeared on this very blog. Yup, ultimately my mistake.)

- Stimulus: Ask Christina Romer and look at our unemployment chart. That should be sufficient to know our answer.

- Afghanistan: When we have American tax payer money to create new warlords, I am not sure we are going anywhere there.

- Israel: Sucking of Orthodox Jew continues.

- Energy: Read Graham news and we know that is failure too.

- FinReg: Are we there? And will it prevent the next mess? Are you and anyone confident there?

So why should I be satisfied supporter of Obama?

Posted by: umesh409 | June 9, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Three in 1980, two (so far) in 2010... how many were there in any other years?

If three was the all-time high-water mark before, and was a solitary peak, where every other year for the past 30 has seen zero incumbent primary loses for senate, than maybe this to is another flash-in-the-pan to be forgotten.

Or maybe these "structural changes" are, in fact, real, and from here on out, two is the new zero?

Won't really know until 2014 though.

Posted by: mudlock | June 9, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

"Either you get the most unattractive candidate for the general election, or the candidate who most resembles the ideology of the other side."

Kevin_Willis,

There is yet another potential outcome for "top two" open primaries.

In places that tend to be heavily Democratic or Republican, the two victors from a primary that advance to the general election may both come from the same dominant political party. This is unhealthy for vigorous debate of the issues of the day, and increases the tendency toward regional political polarization.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 9, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

"If three was the all-time high-water mark before, and was a solitary peak, where every other year for the past 30 has seen zero incumbent primary loses for senate, than maybe this to is another flash-in-the-pan to be forgotten.

Or maybe these "structural changes" are, in fact, real, and from here on out, two is the new zero?"


As I noted in a different thread yesterday, I don't see that you can generalize much from the two incumbent primary losses.

Arlen Specter had spent his entire career in the Senate as a Republican and was 80 years old. His circumstances trying to win a Democratic primary were extremely unusual for an incumbent.

On the other hand, in Utah, you have a state that will certainly go Republican in the fall, and so the party there can afford to tilt as far to the right as they please. Note also that there is no primary election in Utah, the nomination is made by a small band of party activists at a convention. Bennett would likely have fared much better if his constituents at large had been able to go to the polls and express their preference.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 9, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Lincoln, who's been a disaster for working families, would have run unopposed if Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald hasn't persuaded Halter to do run. Halter came within a couple percent. It's hard to label that ineffective.

Posted by: bmull | June 9, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Lincoln will be out of office in November. Keep in mind Independents will be out voting in November. The only question is will Republicans take the House and the Senate.

Posted by: Bubbette1 | June 9, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

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