Remember how 2010 was supposed to be the Year of the Insurgent? The year that the righteous anger of millions of ordinary Americans swept the usual suspects out of Washington in an anti-establishment tsunami of unprecedented size and scope?
"Anti-Washington Feeling Sweeps Into Senate Races," declared CBS News.
"Left, right brace for voters' anti-incumbent anger," added The Washington Times.
Or, as Politico (rather graphically) put it, "The 2010 electorate has swallowed an emetic—disgorging in a series of retching convulsions officeholders in both parties who seem to embody conventional Washington politics."
Well, now what?
On Tuesday, voters in Alaska, Arizona, Vermont, and Florida weighed in on a variety of marquee primary races—and in almost every case, they preferred (or were seeming at press time to prefer) the incumbent, establishment, and/or Washingtonian candidate to his or her insurgent foe.
Many contests weren't even close. In Arizona, 2008 GOP presidential nominee and longtime senator John McCain—a man who appeared on Politico's "Incumbent Watch: Who's Next to Go" list as recently as May—trounced his rival, former representative J. D. Hayworth, by 24 points. Elsewhere, the closest thing to an establishment figure in the race to fill Arizona's Third District's open House seat—33-year-old Ben Quayle, whose father, Dan, served as George H.W. Bush's vice president—defeated gunslinging state Sen. Pam Gorman and African-American Tea Partier Vernon Parker despite recent revelations that he'd described himself as "a tall drink of water who is easy on the eyes" on a raunchy Scottsdale Web site and posed with other people's children for campaign fliers.
In Florida, even cold, hard cash couldn't topple the establishment—at least in one major contest. Billionaire real-estate mogul Jeff Greene, a self-described "outsider" who surprised observers by entering the Democratic Senate primary mere hours before the filing deadline, lost to his relatively uninspiring rival, Rep. Kendrick Meek, by 26 points, even though he plowed tens of millions of dollars into the race. Meanwhile, Rep. Allen Boyd fended off highly competitive state Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson in the Second District Democratic primary.
The story was the same in Alaska and Vermont. In the Green Mountain State, veteran Sen. Patrick Leahy handily defeated political newcomer Daniel Freilich, while three well-liked candidates—all of them longtime fixtures of the state's political landscape, and each with 25 percent of the vote—battled for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination into the wee hours of the morning. Up in the Last Frontier, meanwhile, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski seemed headed for a victory over Sarah Palin–endorsed Tea Partier Joe Miller—much like Murkowski's House counterpart, Rep. Don Young, who looked certain to defeat businessman challenger Sheldon Fisher.
Does the evident success of establishment candidates Tuesday night somehow prove that voters are now fond of career politicians and Washington insiders? Hardly. As every recent poll has shown, America holds Congress is laughably low esteem, and with joblessness hovering near 10 percent and the U.S. economy stuck in neutral, 2010 remains a "kick the bums out" kind of year. Still, it's worth noting—as we here at Gaggle world headquarters have pointed out several times before—that politics is always, at heart, about the candidates and the campaigns they run, even when it's about larger forces as well. Jeff Greene partied with Mike Tyson and Heidi Fleiss aboard his 145-foot yacht, then ran a listless race. J. D. Hayworth is a natural-born shock jock, but a U.S. senator? Maybe not. And so on.
It's no secret that the press tends to shoehorn even the most multifaceted news event into a simple narrative. Expect that process to continue on Wednesday: both Politico and Agence France-Presse have already published stories trumpeting the death of the anti-Washington meme. Unfortunately, the whole exercise is just as futile when incumbents are winning as when they are losing; politics just isn't that tidy. Case in point: even as the anti-establishment eulogies were hitting the wires, the Associated Press was reporting that health-care multimillionaire Rick Scott had defeated Washington-backed Bill McCollum in Florida’s Republican gubernatorial primary, and Christian youth-camp director James Lankford had upset former state representative Kevin Calvey, a Club for Growth favorite, in the runoff for Oklahoma’s open Fifth District House seat. Neither Scott nor Lankford were insiders; each depicted his rival as a “life-long politician.”
So go figure. The establishment did well, except when it didn't. Ultimately, Tuesday’s primaries were no different than their predecessors, even if the headlines will be. In race after race, the strongest candidates tended to win—regardless of whether or not they'd already spent some time in Washington. Just because it isn't news doesn't mean it isn't true.
UPDATE: And so the narrative gets even more convoluted. With 98 percent of precincts reporting in Alaska’s Republican Senate primary, Miller leads Murkowski 51 percent to 49 percent—the biggest surprise of the night. If Miller hangs on to win, it’d be a sizable victory for the country’s anti-incumbent cheerleaders; he was endorsed by Palin and supported by the Tea Party movement, even as every public poll showed him trailing Murkowski by wide margins.
Still, that’s an “if”—if not a big one. Only about 90,000 Alaskans voted in the primary, meaning that Miller’s lead currently stands at less than 2,000 votes. With more than 16,000 requested absentee ballots yet to be returned or counted, there are, as Chris Cillizza of “The Fix” explains, “clearly enough outstanding votes for Murkowski to stage a comeback.” Counting is scheduled to begin next week and continue into September. We might not have a result until the middle of next month.
To quote John Dickerson of Slate: “The national lesson from the primaries today is clear: a;sdlfk jp9r;tyh##”