The subplots abounded Tuesday night: Antipathy toward elected officials and the establishment. The power of special interests. Tests of party purity. The tea party. The quixotic fight against hyper-partisanship.
Each of these narratives, any one of them a powerful story line on its own, came together on the busiest day of the primary season, a concentrated preview of November’s midterm elections. And each was a result or a cause of the single most defining trait of the U.S. political landscape:
A dispirited public is demanding change. Again.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a centrist from Arkansas, defied an anti-incumbent boomlet by winning a runoff against a primary opponent backed by labor groups. Union spent millions of dollars against Lincoln in a failed attempt to send a signal to other not-so-friendly Democrats.
Lincoln’s comeback strategy was twofold: She took the anti-incumbent mood head on — “I know you’re angry at Washington,” she said in one ad — while making out-of-state unions a political boogeyman more scary than even, well, a Washington incumbent.
These outsiders, she said, “try to tell us who we are and buy our votes.”
Former President Bill Clinton, still popular in his home state, especially among black voters, echoed Lincoln’s messages.
With Clinton and Arkansas business leaders behind Lincoln, the race became a fight between the state’s establishment (Lincoln, Clinton and the Chamber of Commerce) and the Washington establishment (unions).
There were numerous candidates — incumbents and challengers, Republicans and Democrats — whose races were influenced by outside groups who acted independently from the campaigns. Such freelancing can overwhelm the candidates’ own message, and it gives voters more pause about the political system.
In addition to Lincoln, one other congressional incumbent faced a stiff challenge Tuesday night: Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C.
Inglis fell far behind his primary challenger and was forced into a runoff after a race centered around the incumbent’s support for the 2008 financial bailout. He’s not the first incumbent haunted by that vote.
Nevada voters tossed Gov. Jim Gibbons from office after a tumultuous term that was marred by a bitter divorce and allegations of infidelities.
Less than one-third of Americans say they are inclined to support their House representative in November, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, a level lower than in 1994, when Democrats lost control of the House after 40 years in power.
Four incumbents lost seats earlier this spring: Sens. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and Parker Griffith, R-Ala.
Political neophytes were the rage again Tuesday, winning from California to New Jersey. An unemployed military veteran stunned South Carolina Democratic Party leaders by winning the nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.
Primary voters are punishing candidates who cooperate with the opposing party. Specter was one of the Senate’s best-known moderates. Republican activists ended Bennett’s career because he had worked with a Democrat on a health care bill that went nowhere.
Lincoln avoided that fate. Inglis was punished.
Voters tell pollsters that partisanship and gridlock are among the reasons they despise Washington.
California voters sought to tackle the problem by approving an initiative to scrap the primary system for state and congressional elections. Supporters say the change will benefit moderates who often stumble in highly partisan primaries. Party leaders oppose the idea — no surprise — because they fear a loss of clout.
It was an uneven performance for the loose coalition of conservative and disenchanted voters called a tea party.
Movement candidates won in Nevada, South Carolina, Georgia and Maine.
But in Virginia, three tea party congressional candidates lost.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll showed the percentage of Americans who hold an unfavorable view of the movement has jumped from 39 percent in March to 50 percent.
It’s not that voters are any happier than they were three months ago. Perhaps some are starting to view the tea party — and its controversial candidates — as something else not to like about politics.
Less than two years ago, voters sought to pull the country in a dramatically different direction by electing a young, inexperienced president who promised to change politics. Despite a deep economic recession, the percentage of people who believed the country was headed in the right direction skyrocketed. Barack Obama’s job approval numbers soared.
The bloom is off that rose.
While Obama’s ratings are fairly steady now — his job approval hovers around 50 percent — a vast majority believe the country is on the wrong track. Only 22 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington, according to Pew Research Center, among the lowest measures in half a century.
The unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent. Oil sullies the Gulf of Mexico. U.S. troops die in Afghanistan and Iraq. Government bailouts and Obama’s health care initiative stir fears about the national debt. And, nine years after 9/11, doubts linger about the country’s defenses.
“We need,” said GOP voter Tony Williams on Election Day in California, “some new blood in there.”
Ron Fournier is Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press. AP writers Charles Babington, Michael Blood, David Espo and Juliet Williams contributed.
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