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Warning to incumbents: You got trouble

By RON FOURNIER
May 19, 2010

Rand Paul savors victory in Kentucky

Go home. Stick to your guns. Keep your nose clean. Distance yourself from Washington, or even better, your own party.

That’s the advice political operatives are giving incumbents and establishment-backed candidates after voters delivered a harsh message to insiders Tuesday night: Enough!

One Senate incumbent, Arlen Specter, lost his seat in Pennsylvania. A second, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, was forced to defend hers in a runoff. And an establishment-backed candidate in Kentucky, Trey Grayson, lost badly to a tea party favorite who said voters don’t want “the same old, same old politicians.”

Fingers planted firmly in the wind, Washington incumbents will be dialing up their consultants and asking how to survive this angry-as-heck headwind.

Some early answers:

RECONNECT WITH VOTERS: Too many incumbents take their seats for granted, comfortable in the thought that their monied connections, tailor-made districts and name recognition will carry them to victory. Not so much this year.

“My advice to candidates would be, roll up your sleeves. You’ve got some connecting to do,” said Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis.

“Pay attention to your knitting,” said Republican consultant Ron Kaufman. “Get out of Washington and back to your district.”

Consultants in both parties point to Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah as the classic example of an incumbent who lost touch with his constituents. He was denied a spot on the ballot at a Utah Republican convention earlier this month.

“You could say he lost because of the political environment and the tea party,” said Kaufman. “You could also say he was tone-deaf.”

DON’T FLIP-FLOP: Specter’s Democratic opponent cast him as a political opportunist who switched from the Republican Party just to get re-elected, a charge that stuck with voters because, well, Specter confessed to it. “My change in party will enable me to be re-elected,” Specter said at one point, handing his rival fodder for a devastating TV ad.

Voting against Specter on Tuesday, college professor Tom Cragin said, “He must think we’re idiots.”

Lincoln changed positions on legislation important to labor unions, undercutting her credibility.

STAND APART: Republican consultant Ben Ginsberg said politicians of all stripes might start distancing themselves from their party leadership. “I expect candidates will start telling voters how they fought against Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell,” the Democratic and Republican leaders, respectively, in the Senate.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Bennett lost in part because he was “too reasonable,” meaning he was a get-along guy when voters are looking for somebody who will buck authority. “People want folks who have an edge,” he said, “and will fight.”

DON’T GET IN TROUBLE: The first House incumbent to lose his seat this year, Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, fell in a primary to an opponent who highlighted ethics issues.

As if incumbents didn’t have enough trouble in the primaries, both parties had other issues.

Rep. Mark Souder, a conservative Republican from Indiana, abruptly announced he would resign effective Friday, admitting he had had an affair with a woman on his congressional payroll. Democrats said his resignation would make the seat competitive in the fall.

And Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general running for the Senate, disputed a newspaper report that he once lied about his Vietnam record. Republicans focused on the report, hoping it would increase their chances of winning the seat.

These are scary days for career politicians.

“I’m against the establishment. They’re all crooked, unreliable and selfish for power,” said Bill Osburn, 79, a military retiree from Murray, Ky., who helped tea party favorite Rand Paul win the Senate GOP nomination. “We need citizen representatives, not political politicians.”

Paul, a political novice, defeated Grayson in an early test of the so-called tea party, a loose affiliation of disaffected voters — mostly conservatives.

“It cannot be overstated that people want something new,” Paul said. “They don’t want the same old, same old politicians, and I think they think the system is broken and needs new blood.”

The same could be said in Pennsylvania after 80-year-old Specter lost his bid for a sixth term. His rival for the Democratic Senate nomination, Joe Sestak, accused party leaders of trying to foist Specter on Pennsylvania voters.

“My party’s establishment got off track,” he told USA Today before the election.

In Arkansas, Lincoln didn’t do well enough Tuesday to avoid a June 8 runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, putting her 17-year career in Congress at risk.

“Voters are so angry they are throwing plates,” said Democratic consultant Dane Strother, who coordinated independent ad buys that supported Lincoln’s candidacy.

Gingrich said the high unemployment rate is driving the public’s discontent. On top of that, “they’re sitting around watching the government fail to deal with the oil spill in the Gulf, fail to deal with terrorist plots in Detroit and New York, and fail to protect our borders from illegal immigrants.”

“So now you’re a politician, looking slick and smooth with lots of money and maybe an insider’s pedigree,” Gingrich said. “Maybe that’s a liability.”

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Ron Fournier is Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press.

© 2010 The Associated Press

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