The muddled message from yesterday's elections

Both Republicans and Democrats had a lot on the line in last night’s primaries and in a special election in Pennsylvania, with both looking for some hint as to how the midterms would go.  Which party had the most to cheer?  David Freddoso says the Democrats dodged a bullet and may have reversed a loser narrative, at least temporarily:

Republicans will begin with a lead in the Senate races in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky, and by chance they have an opening in Connecticut on the same day. But none of these races will be a sure thing. It should serve as a reminder to the GOP that large gains this year are not a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s ability to motivate his base voters is once again called into question. His heavy support for Specter proved ineffective. His backing of Lincoln might have been counterproductive. These two defeats follow his unsuccessful campaigns on behalf of Democrats Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Jon Corzine in New Jersey, and Creigh Deeds in Virginia.

Well, maybe.  It’s worth noting that the Democratic establishment candidates had a tough time in close-fought races.  Arlen Specter had the backing of the DSCC and Barack Obama, was an incumbent who delivered key votes to Harry Reid — and still lost to Joe Sestak, who couldn’t claim any of those things.  Blanche Lincoln managed to survive to a runoff round with an almost-imperceptible lead over Bill Halter but not a majority.  The problem for both is that the Left is more energized than the center in this cycle, which made it hard for establishment candidates to keep support.

The larger problem for Democrats is that the entire Right is significantly more energized than the Left.  While Lincoln hashes out her runoff and Sestak tries to run to the center after beating Specter from the Left, Republicans are already positioned to generate turnout models that will handicap Democrats greatly.  There is a large difference between winning a closed primary and winning a general election, and the anti-incumbent fever that impacted both races will add to Democrats’ woes regardless of whether Halter wins or not — and it’s worth pointing out, as Pat Toomey undoubtedly will, that Sestak is an incumbent in the House.

Tim Burns’ loss was a disappointment, but not too much of a surprise.  After all, this is a heavily Democratic district that elected the same Democrat the last eighteen elections.  Their registration edge is in double digits, so an eight-point loss for Republicans isn’t a bad showing.  It does demonstrate some limits to the impact that the national mood will have in November; the GOP can’t expect to win open seats in heavily Democratic districts, but they may be able to topple some incumbents in others.  Burns will have another shot at Mark Critz in November, having won the simultaneous primary against William Russell, but that seems like a longer shot now than last night.  Unless Critz does something foolish between now and then, he’s probably safe.

The lesson for Democrats from last night was that the backlash against the establishment means a backlash against them in the general election.  For Republicans, the lesson is that they should not throw tons of resources at open seats in heavily Democratic districts this fall, but focus more on Democratic incumbents and open districts with narrower Democratic registration advantages.

Update: Laura Ingraham mainly agrees and adds some other good points:

– Critz ran an excellent campaign–he was no Martha Coakley.

– Critz also ran as a conservative: His TV ads are all about tax breaks, pro-coal and pro-jobs initiatives, supporting gun rights, opposing ObamaCare, and being pro-life. He talked about cutting congressional budgets, bringing down the national debt, and stepping up the federal government’s fight against illegal immigration.

– This is a seat that has been in Democratic hands since 1974. Yet the NRCC only matched the DCCC’s investment in the campaign, spending $947,720 on TV ads compared to the Democrats’ $950,241.

It certainly wasn’t a victory for the Left, at least ideologically, even if Sestak’s win certainly was.  Ingraham is also a little more optimistic than I am about PA-12 in November.

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