Posted by: Jeff | May 19, 2010

Democrats: Stand By Your Policies

I don’t really have anything to say on yesterday’s primary results, as they’re a pretty poor data set from which to draw conclusions about possible outcomes in November. For one thing, the rules governing how primaries operate – who can run, how they win, who can vote, etc. – vary from state to state. For another, primaries tend to be very low-turnout affairs, and thus reflect the mood of each party’s base rather than the general voting public’s.

There certainly does seem to be a generalized anti-incumbent sentiment floating around out there, but what that means is anybody’s guess. It would seem to militate for the Republicans, as they’re pretty much the “outsiders” by definition this time around. But opposition to incumbents, or even to “elites” or “the establishment,” is not the same as opposition to big government. The latter is specifically rooted in policy concerns. The others are rooted in concerns about process; about whether the way we get to results is working properly, not about whether the results themselves are proper.

That’s illustrated by something relatively interesting that did happen yesterday, which is that a Democrat won a special election for a House seat in Pennsylvania. (Not a primary; an actual House race.) While it was in a district that has tended Democratic, it’s populated by blue-collar conservatives and was carried by John McCain in 2008. In other words, it’s a swing district; precisely the sort of place the Republicans will need to do well in if they want to move back into the legislative majority come November.

Daniel Larison dissects the election:

There are many things about the PA-12 special election that are unique to that race and district, but one thing that ties it to many of the other Republican special election losses over the last three years is the party’s obsession with nationalizing House races that might have conceivably been won by appealing to local issues and concerns. In NY-23 we saw Hoffman scoffing at “parochial” issues, and in NY-20 Tedisco ran a disastrously bad campaign that frittered away all of his advantages as a well-liked local representative and re-made himself into a robot repeating the national party’s message. Before that we saw several failed attempts in IL-14, MS-01 and elsewhere to run against “Pelosi-Reid,” when the real competition came in the form of effective candidates with strong local connections. As I said last year in connection with the NY-23 race:

Something I don’t understand about the national GOP’s elevation of the NY-23 race to such a high profile is why they think nationalizing House races favors them. Nationally, the GOP remains toxic and its party ID continues to be very low. Nationalizing the race gains the GOP nothing in a traditionally supportive district, but it potentially saddles their preferred candidate with all of their baggage from the past several years. It is also mimicking the absolutely failed Republican tactics of almost every special election of the last three years. With depressing regularity, GOP attack ads have warned voters against such-and-such a candidate siding with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, when most people outside of Washington don’t know and couldn’t care who these people are.

Short version: The Republicans aren’t winning by running against the Democrats’ policies. Which would also imply that Democrats don’t need to run away from their policies in order to win, either. Whichever party does better in the mid-terms will be the one whose candidates were successfully able to portray themselves as opposed to “business as usual,” and to link their preferred policies – be those policies liberal or conservative – to local concerns and to the need for responsive governance.

That said, the Democrats’ win in PA-12 isn’t necessarily a harbinger of things to come. (It’s just one election; again, a poor data set.) It was a special election to fill the seat left open by the death of John Murtha, so I guess both the Democratic and Republican candidates could have been perceived as “outsiders” by the voters. So general anti-incumbent sentiment could still help Republicans far more than Democrats. But it does imply that such sentiment isn’t all that deeply connected to opposition to Democratic or liberal policies. Or to approval of Republican or conservative policies. Indeed, it seems pretty likely the public’s current dissatisfaction with government has little to no policy substance at all.

The structural realities of November – it’s a mid-term election, and the economy sucks – still tilt in the Republicans’ favor, but as Larison and The New York Times piece note, PA-12 also points towards some possible strategies or approaches Democrats could use to even the odds.


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