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August primaries: a good night for incumbents

August primaries: a good night for incumbents

The most interesting feature of the 2014 primary season is spotlighted in this line from Fox News‘ primary-night roundup: “Despite Congress’ abysmal approval ratings, only three incumbents have lost this election cycle — [Michigan Rep. Kerry] Bentivolio and fellow Republican Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Ralph Hall of Texas.”

That’s remarkable given the “voters hate everybody” mood supposedly revealed in polls, isn’t it?  Chins have been wagging inside the  Beltway over an apocalyptic NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll that says everything sucks and everybody stinks:

Six in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the U.S. economy, more than 70 percent believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and nearly 80 percent are down on the country’s political system, according to the latest NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll.

The frustration carries over to the nation’s political leaders, with President Barack Obama’s overall approval rating hitting a new low at 40 percent, and a mere 14 percent of the public giving Congress a thumbs up.

“We’re in the summer of our discontent,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “Americans are cranky, unhappy… It is with everything going on the world.”

And yet, only one incumbent lost in this round of Republican primaries.  Only one lost in the round before that, and only one in the primaries before that.  (It should have been two incumbents last time, but supporters of Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi pulled out all the stops and used outrageous tactics to get him re-elected, and keep the pork-barrel money flowing.)  And the Democrats don’t have anything comparable to the Establishment vs. Tea Party battle going on in their ranks.

For all the discontent people claim to feel, they keep sending the same people back to Washington, where they march under the banners of a shaken but largely intact GOP Establishment.  In the past, this has commonly been ascribed to the “everyone else’s representative is bad but my guy is okay” attitude, but a recent ABC News / Washington Post poll suggested that for the first time in the history of their survey, a majority of voters disapprove of their own representatives.  Somehow those frowns turn upside down when it’s time to actually cast a vote.

Perhaps that’s an enduring tribute to the powers of incumbency, which have helped Establishment candidates turn back so many Tea Party challengers.  Some of those races were close enough to send a strong message to the incumbent, although it remains to be seen how long they dwell on that message.  Democrats have some reason to fear that the Republican primaries are a sign of party voters firming up their resolve, supporting what they perceive to be the more “electable” candidate and keeping powerful incumbents in place for the big showdown in November.  It’s also possible that while those polls purport to show widespread voter disdain for both parties, the Democrats are the party in power, so they’ll take the brunt of serious backlash at the polls.  A good deal of Republican disapproval comes from conservatives who think their GOP representatives are not conservative enough, and while those people might well stay home in November, not many of them are going to vote for the even less conservative Democrat in the race.

The marquee contest of Tuesday evening wound up being something less than a near-death experience for incumbent Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who faced a strong Tea Party challenger in Dr. Milton Wolf, but still prevailed 48-41.  Wolf made up a lot of ground after a forbidding start to his campaign, and is said to have been enough of a threat to nudge the conservative Roberts further to the right, but provides yet another example of how outsider challengers can shoot themselves in the foot, often with statements made before they got serious about politics:

Wolf, a radiologist and distant cousin of President Obama, cut into Roberts’ 20-point polling lead in the closing weeks of the race, but was also damaged by political attacks, primarily TV ads about him posting gruesome X-ray images on Facebook in 2010.

The 43-year-old Wolf apologized for posting the images, including one of fatal gunshot wounds, and making Facebook comments intended to be humorous. However, his campaign, backed by the Tea Party Express, failed to catch political fire.

Roberts is heavily favored to win the general election against Democrat Chad Taylor, who lags far behind in campaign financing, and will be hamstrung by the presence of an independent candidate, Greg Orman

At the same time, two familiar names from the Tea Party wave in 2010, Rep. Tim Huelskamp and Rep. Mike Pompeo, also survived primary challenges in Kansas.  Although both of those races are generally described as “close” in national media accounts, Huelskamp actually won by 10 points, while Pompeo clobbered former Congressman Todd Tiahrt – who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010 after 16 years in the House – in a 63-37 win.  I’ve read some pieces this morning that described Roberts’ 7-point victory as a crushing flameout for Wolf, even though he started 20 points in the hole… while simultaneously portraying Huelskamp’s 10-point victory as a weak performance that proves the controversial Tea Party firebrand is in deep trouble.  Such is the media burden of the Tea Party: even when you win, you lose.

The Kansas City Star recaps Tiahrt’s campaign against Pompeo, which promised to open up the federal money spigot in a classic Establishment appeal:

Tiahrt has said he was running because he can no longer sit by and “see all the hard work I did deteriorate.”

With the Wichita economy ailing from its depressed aviation industry, Tiahrt’s campaign has focused on whether Pompeo has done enough to help his district. Tiahrt points to federal money he brought home while in Congress to public works projects and aviation companies, while Pompeo criticizes federal largesse and suggests local businesses are better served by lower taxes.

Chris Kester, a 44-year-old aircraft worker, voted for Pompeo in the 4th District race and was unimpressed with Tiahrt’s efforts to reclaim his old seat.

“He should have kept the job in the first place if he wanted it,” Kester said as he left a voting site in Wichita.

That, in a nutshell, is a big part of the reasons polls can purport to show that incumbents and Establishment figures are as popular as ebola, but they win (or come very close to winning) anyway.  At the end of the day, promises to bring home the bacon from Washington always resonate with a good deal of the electorate.  To put that NBC News doomsday poll in another light, voters hate everybody else’s pork-barrel spending and think Washington is throwing too much money around, but they tend to take a more affectionate view of the federal dollars flowing into their district.  Thus does a system everyone knows is headed for a hard crash endure, election after election.

It might be taken as a positive sign for conservative reformers that Pompeo scored a convincing victory despite his fiscal conservatism, although one gets the impression people in the district were still a bit miffed at Tiahrt for giving up his seat to run for the Senate, as the quote from the Kansas City Star illustrates.  It also helps that Pompeo’s district just happens to be the home of the Koch Brothers… (let us pause a moment to give liberal readers an opportunity to gasp in horror) … who backed his campaign.

There’s also some doomsaying against Kansas governor Sam Brownback supposedly winning a less-than-inspiring victory over pot-legalizing political newcomer Jennifer Winn, even though she only took 37 percent of the vote.  That’s much better than the 20 percent she was expected to get, so Brownback is told to view the results as a shot across his bow.

The lone defeated incumbent of the evening, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan, was a Tea Party candidate defeated by Establishment candidate David Trott.  Trott won 66-34 after the Republican Party largely abandoned Bentivolio, who ended up running a shoestring campaign against Trott’s $3.4 million effort (he’s a very successful foreclosure attorney) coupled with an endorsement from Mitt Romney, who carried the district in 2012.  Bentivolio ended up being a sitting duck despite a solid record in the House, as noted by Politico:

Bentivolio is considered a consistently conservative vote in the House, though he had not always loyal to party leadership. He has been one of the more active freshmen members, serving on the House’s Oversight and Government Reform and Small Business committees, and he introduced several successful pieces of legislation. GovTrack.us even rated his office the most transparent of the House’s freshman class.

But that record appears not to have been enough to help the incumbent overcome his persistent image problems. Even in running for reelection, Bentivolio received more attention for owning reindeer and calling the impeachment of President Barack Obama “a dream” than for his legislative accomplishments.

The poor guy lost so badly that he’s already fading from election history, disparaging referred to as “the accidental congressman” because he was propelled into office by the sudden resignation of Rep. Thad McCotter in 2012, leaving him the only Republican name on the ballot.  The Detroit Free Press criticized Bentivolio for running “a largely invisible campaign”:

Trott spent more than $2.4 million — the same amount he’s given or lent his own campaign, and more than four times as much as Bentivolio. A Free Press poll on the race last month done by EPIC-MRA of Lansing showed Trott with a 22-percentage-point lead on the incumbent. It included an edge among tea party supporters — who would have otherwise been expected to form the base of Bentivolio’s support.

And yet, even at the end, few seemed to have entirely written off Bentivolio’s chances, even though he spent a recent weekend on a congressional visit to Central America rather than drumming up votes in the district and kept a relatively low profile — at least in terms of mass media or mailings — back in Michigan.

Instead, he relied on messages — often delivered by e-mail from his campaign — or the efforts of outside supporters to point out that Trott’s law practice has specialized in foreclosure services, and that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which supports Trott — has supported immigration reform which includes a path for undocumented immigrants to be in the U.S. lawfully.

Perhaps it’s a little sad that getting important legislation passed and running an extremely honest office isn’t good enough to get you re-elected, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.  Incumbents have to get in the game and use their advantages to run serious re-election efforts.  Thad Cochran and his supporters got complacent in Mississippi, and he ended up having to run the dirtiest last-ditch effort in history to keep his seat.  Bentivolio didn’t have a zillion years of incumbency and a mountain of pork to run on, and his own Party regarded him as a mere placeholder.

Although Trott is now considered a modest favorite against the still-to-be-determined Democrat challenger in November, that stuff about making tens of millions of dollars as a foreclosure attorney does seem like a bit of a liability.  He overcame it during the primary.  Hopefully he’s savvy enough to understand that the general election will pose a greater challenge.

Elsewhere in Michigan, Rep. Justin Amash won his primary against investment adviser Brian Ellis.  It was not a very cheerful victory party, as reported  by the Grand Rapids Press:

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash’s primary victory celebration quickly turned from appreciation for his supporters to an attack on his Republican opponent and others who the two-term congressman felt betrayed him.

“Brian Ellis, you owe my family and this community an apology,” Amash said. “You had the audacity to try to call me today after running a campaign that was called ‘the nastiest in the country.’

“I ran for office to stop people like you.”

The Liberterian-minded Amash on Tuesday, Aug. 5, soundly beat Ellis, who billed himself as sort of the “anti-Amash” candidate for votes he considered out of touch with Third District voters. Countless endorsements, including the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce to Right to Life of Michigan, fell to Ellis’ side during the past few months, but it failed to carry voters to his camp.

Amash, R-Cascade Township, was up 57 to 43 percent as of 12:25 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 6. There were eight precincts left to report.

[...] “I want to say to lobbyist Pete Hoekstra, you’re a disgrace,” said Amash, noting the former U.S. representative who appeared in a TV ad for Ellis. “I’m glad we can hand you one more loss before you fade into total obscurity and irrelevance.”

What is the best in life, Conan?  To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their consultants.

Also in Michigan, Terri Lynn Land became the Republican contender for the Senate seat left open by the retirement of Democrat incumbent Carl Levin.  It’s considered a winnable race for the Republicans, and while Land looked good against Democrat Rep. Gary Peters at first, the race has tightened to a dead heat, with Peters up a few points in most polls.  National Journal ascribes this to “a blend of bizarre advertisements, stilted media encounters, intentional under-exposure, state policy prescriptions, and lingering questions over the legality of her campaign finances.”

Most crucially, while Land is a tireless campaigner with great grassroots connections, she seems to have trouble dealing with hostile media – an essential survival skill for any major Republican candidate.  The big turning point in her Senate bid came at a disastrous press encounter in May:

Known for her cheery manner and pitched giggle, Land more closely resembles a PTA president than a U.S. Senate candidate. She is undeniably decent and kind, but also passive to the point of being a pushover – which can present a unique set of problems when dealing with the media scrutiny of a federal campaign. Smartly recognizing this, Land’s team made a concerted effort to avoid reporters early and often.

The cat-and-mouse game couldn’t last forever, though. And sure enough, Land’s friends who predicted she would struggle with the media were proven correct in May, when she encountered a press scrum after addressing a business gathering on Mackinac Island. According to reporters involved, Land looked like a deer in the headlights when confronted with basic questions about net neutrality, the Affordable Care Act, and the Detroit automaker bailout.

“Land was absolutely dreadful. She came across like a high school student who had memorized a speech,” veteran reporter Jack Lessenberry wrote for Michigan Radio, adding: “Worse, when surrounded by reporters and bombarded with questions afterwards, she clearly panicked. She was a frightened Sarah Palin in sensible shoes, and everybody knew it.”

Detroit Free Press reporter Kathleen Gray wrote of Land’s media scrum: “At one point, looking slightly panicked and clearly uncomfortable, she pushed microphones away and said: ‘I can’t do this. I talk with my hands.’”

“A frightened Sarah Palin in sensible shoes?”  Anyone running as a Republican woman against the Democrats’ War on Women B.S. had better be prepared to sail against gale-force winds of misogyny from the “neutral” press.  Peters seems to think Land will be easy prey in debates after this incident, challenging her to half a dozen of them.  If she steps up her game and surprises him, the momentum of the race could easily shift again.  It clearly won’t be good enough to go down in political history as the decent, kind, hardworking candidate who lost anyway, especially if 2014 is otherwise a Republican wave.

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