Why Tomorrow's Primaries Won't Be a Big Deal—No Matter What Happens

Prepare yourself. Political types are billing tomorrow as a Super Duper Tuesday of sorts—"a date that ranks as the most important of the election calendar so far," according to Politico's Charles Mahtesian. That means, of course, that there will be some banner election contests: Democratic Senate primaries in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, a Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, and a special election to fill the late John Murtha's congressional seat, again in the Keystone State. But even more, it means that there will be a lot of people like me taking to the airwaves and the Internet to tell people like you what "really's going on here."

Here's a tip: don't listen to us. Truth is, you already know what's going on. Despite recent GDP growth, job gains, and stock-market rallies, whatever economic recovery we're currently supposed to be experiencing hasn't really trickled down to Main Street. Most ordinary Americans are still stuck in the Great Recession—still struggling to find work, still tightening their belts, still worried about paying the bills. And so, as poll after poll has shown, they are angry, agitated, and restless. They blame the establishment, the insiders, the Beltway types, the incumbents—the people who are in charge. They tend on the whole to direct their ire at Democrats, because right now Democrats tend to be in positions of power. But for the most part their dissatisfaction is not ideological. They want someone who can make things better. And someone different is a start. 

No matter what happens in tomorrow's primaries—no matter who wins or who loses—this will be the message that voters are sending. Seriously. It won't be about the Tea Party, or a progressive resurgence, or some new level of partisan polarization. It'll be about plain old change. Here's why, state by state: 

1) Pennsylvania: Heading into the homestretch, both of the Keystone State's marquee races are too close to call. According to the final pre-primary Quinnipiac poll, progressive insurgent Rep. Joe Sestak leads incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter by 1 statistically insignificant point, 42 percent to 41 percent; a whopping 16 percent of likely voters are undecided. The picture in the conservative Democratic 12th District is similar: Republican businessman Tim Burns leads Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha aide, 48 percent to 47 percent. Either contest could break either way. But every possible outcome—slim victories for the incumbent types, slim upsets for the challengers—will say pretty much the same thing: that in 2010, the voters of Pennsylvania are much more attracted to anti-establishment candidates—and much less inclined to take their marching orders from Gov. Ed Rendell's Democratic machine—than they normally would be. Ideology is irrelevant here: Burns is more conservative than Critz; Sestak is more liberal than Specter. The only thing they have in common is that they're not the status quo. Win or lose, that's the main reason they're so competitive.

2) Arkansas: There's very little mystery about who will finish first in the Natural State's Democratic Senate primary: current Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Every recent poll shows her leading her main opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, by double-digit or high-single-digit margins. But with a third hopeful in the hunt—businessman D. C. Morrison—the question is whether she'll be able to hit the 50 percent mark and avoid a June 8 runoff. Right now, it looks possible (if unlikely): her support in the latest survey stands at 46 percent, with 11 percent undecided. Not that it really matters. The real message here, regardless of whether Lincoln wins now or next month, is that voter dissatisfaction in Arkansas is strong enough to propel a pair of challengers into a primary fight against an incumbent Democrat and make her life far more difficult than it would've been in a quieter year. But given that one of those challengers is more liberal than Lincoln (Halter) and one is more conservative (Morrison), describing the Arkansas nominating contest as a referendum on the incumbent's ideology doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

3) Kentucky: This one's easy. Rand Paul—the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul—is probably going to defeat Trey Grayson, a two-term secretary of state groomed for the U.S. Senate by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian. According to RealClear Politics, Paul's average polling lead currently stands at 14.2 percent; Grayson hasn't led in a single survey—or even pulled within 10 points of his rival—since last December. The race has become a staging ground for the ongoing battle within the Republican Party between small-government purists and Beltway insiders who enabled George W. Bush's spending spree, so it's no wonder that Paul, a principled libertarian, is ahead of the very corporate-seeming Grayson. But this development has more to do with style and organizing than ideology. As The Washington Examiner notes, "they both label themselves as '100 percent pro-life,' small-government conservatives. They are both anti-bailout, anti-Obamacare, pro-border fence, and pro-gun." Except on foreign wars—which Paul tends to oppose—there's not much philosophical daylight between the two Kentucky contenders. But Paul has a lock on the protest brand, and protest is what's hot right now.

None of which is to say that Republicans won't pick up seats in November. They undoubtedly will. But the fact is, tomorrow's races won't reveal very much about the changing ideological direction of the country. We'll have to wait to see, for example, whether Republicans will unseat Lincoln in Arkansas or displace a Democrat in Pennsylvania, and how a Tea Party candidate like Rand Paul or Marco Rubio will hold up in a general election. In the meantime, Super Duper Tuesday will simply give the pundits yet another excuse to tell us what we already know: that people are pissed off and looking for change.

Let the bloviating begin. 

UPDATE: Commenter Solor4114 makes an excellent point: 

Specter is a weak candidate. There's no two ways about it. He's weak, however, not because "Voters are looking for change," or at least not because of that in simplistic terms. Specter's weakness is that he has made ineffective efforts (to the extent he's made much effort at all) to win voters. He's relying on clout (both his own and others'), name recognition, and history to win him the day. In essence, he's not really campaigning. I suspect if he had made an effort to construct a narrative other than "So I can be re-elected" or at least to explain why he cares to be re-elected (other than it allows him to stay in a position of power), if he had done more than simply say "I bring pork home for PA," he might have had a chance.

An important reminder that politics is always local, even when it's national as well. 

Join the Discussion