Where the 2010 Elections Seem Headed

“Keep your eye on Pennsylvania on Tuesday and on Hawaii next Saturday,” Republican National Chairman Michael Steele told me last Saturday (May 15).”New Jersey and Virginia [electing Republican governors] last fall, Massachusetts [electing Republican Scott Brown to the Senate] in January, and now Pennsylvania and Hawaii [holding special elections for the House.  After next week, you’ll see a pattern for 2012.”

Steele turned out to be half right. On Tuesday, May 18, Democrats held the Western Pennsylvania seat that had been in Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s hands from 1974 until his death earlier this year.  Democrat Mark Critz, longtime top aide to Murtha, defeated Republican Tim Burns by 52% to 45%. Last Saturday, May 22, Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou became only the second Republican House member Hawaii’s 51 years as a state by winning the open seat in the district that claims Barack Obama as a resident.

At first glance, one could say there is enough evidence from those two races for pundit Dick Morris (who predicts Republicans will sweep the House and Senate “and it won’t even be close”) and for pollster Stan Greenberg (who says Republicans have peaked too early in this off-year election) to both claim they are on target about 2010. 

But there is much more to the races in Pennsylvania-12 and Hawaii-1. In winning a hard-fought contest, Democrat Critz strongly repudiated his national party and its President.  He said he would have voted against the House-passed healthcare bill, was pro-life and pro-gun, and against cap and trade climate legislation.  He also benefited from poorly worded statements by Republican Burns about the fair tax, which opened the door for a media salvo from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee charging that the GOP hopeful backed higher taxes on groceries. 

In Hawaii, the 39-year-old Djou ran as a supporter of repealing the healthcare bill and the estate tax, cutting the capital gains tax, and opposing any stimulus packages.  But he also was the beneficiary of his state’s election law which required all candidates regardless of party to appear on the same ballot, the top vote-getter being the winner.  Republican Djou got 42% of the vote, as two heavyweight Democratic contenders (neither of whom lived in the 1st District) split up the remaining 58%.  Like Louisiana Republican Rep. Joseph Cao, who in ’08 won a district more than 80% Democratic by registration against scandal-racked Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson, Djou will be a premier Democratic target this fall.

The results in the two special House races last week, then, were more the products of particular local circumstances than any national trend. 

 But there are two trends that have so far emerged from the primaries and other political developments so far this year.

It helps to be an outsider.  There’s no argument here.  The smashing nomination of Rand Paul in the Kentucky GOP Senate primary over an “establishment” candidate; the failure of three-term GOP Sen. Robert Bennett at the Utah GOP convention earlier this month to advance to a primary against two political newcomers, and the nomination of conservative outsiders backed by local Tea Party activists over more moderate establishment Republicans in four U.S. House primaries in Illinois in February—all are strong examples of how it helps to be perceived as an outsider rather than as an insider this year.  Even Arizona Democratic Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln’s being forced into a run-off by more liberal Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is a sign of the clout of being considered an outsider:  Halter, while backed by organized labor and denouncing Lincoln for not supporting a public option in healthcare legislation, also attacked the two-term senator as “Bailout Blanche” for supporting financial bailouts with tax dollars. 

It helps to oppose the Obama agenda.  As I interview conservative candidates for the House and Senate for HUMAN EVENTS “Races of the Week” feature, I keep hearing a line repeated over and over again: that the Democrat being opposed supported the healthcare bill, the stimulus packages and cap and trade.  This “trifecta” of votes in Congress increasingly sculpts the message of the Republican opponents and even of GOP candidates for open House seats.  Former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan, GOP candidate for the open seat in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County-based 7th District, told me how his opponent had embraced the “trifecta” even before nominated and was thus one of “[House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi’s puppets.”

Obviously Mark Critz understood this and “took a walk” on two of the three red meat issues in question. 

Since the Arizona law was signed empowering police to question people who might be illegal immigrants and the White House (and Mexican President Calderon) sharply denounced the measure, more than a few readers have written suggesting rather than a “trifecta” of issues on which to oppose Obama-Pelosi Democrats, adding illegal immigration there are now —four hot issues on which the liberals will be pounded. 

There are other signs that could suggest a Republican tsunami such as that predicted by Dick Morris is in the works.  The surprise exoduses of such high-profile Democrats as Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan and, more recently, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (Wis.) make Morris’s case even stronger.