Another Dent in the Anti-Incumbent Narrative

It's Wednesday morning. Which means yesterday was Tuesday. Which means that a bunch of primary votes were tallied last night in various and sundry corners of the country, and a bunch of candidates either won, or lost, or limped into runoff races. Which means, of course, that today is all about Figuring Out What the Results Tell Us About the 2010 Midterms and, More Important, the Electorate's Raging Anti-Incumbent/Establishment/Insider Mood ®, as mandated by pundit law.

Some races can be made to fit the preexisting narrative without too much trouble. In Alabama, Rep. Artur Davis lost his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination despite benefiting from establishment support; after trailing for months in nearly every poll, state agricultural commissioner Ron Sparks came from behind in the final weeks to clobber Davis 63 percent to 27 percent. Similarly, Rep. Parker Griffith, who jumped from the Democratic Party to the GOP last December, lost the Republican primary in Alabama's Fifth Congressional District even though national GOP leaders strongly backed his bid; rival Mo Brooks cleared the runoff bar with 51 percent of the vote (compared with Griffith's paltry 33 percent).

But inconveniently—at least for the talking heads on TV—anti-establishment fever fails to account for, well, the rest of Tuesday's results. In fact, it doesn't even really explain what happened to Griffith and Davis, either. It's not just that a handful of incumbent-insider types—Sen. Richard Selby in Alabama, for example—emerged victorious last night. It's that almost every anti-establishment candidate lost. In the Republican race for Alabama governor, real-estate developer Tim James (who gained notoriety for insisting on "English-only" driver's-license exams) was unable to catch frontrunner Bradley Bryne, while in Mississippi, Tea Party contenders Henry Ross (33 percent) and Angela McGlowan (15 percent) finished far behind favorite Alan Nunnelee (52 percent) in the MS-01 house race. Dale Peterson—the man behind the "best ad ever"—had to settle for bronze in the Alabama agricultural commissioner contest, and Tea Party candidate Rick Barber lost 49-29 to GOP establishment pick and Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby in AL-02. A few of these races—AL-02, Alabama governor—will proceed to runoffs, but in all likelihood the leaders (Roby, Byrne) will only grow stronger once the field is winnowed. Meanwhile, every incumbent but Griffith won in Alabama, with only two others facing challengers. In Mississippi, no sitting rep faced a challenger. New Mexico was the same.

So, how to explain what happened last night? How about this: the best candidates—the pols who ran the campaigns best suited for the particular constituencies they were courting—were the ones who won. Davis didn't lose in Alabama because he was a Washington favorite; he lost because he alienated the state's most important Democratic primary voting bloc (African-Americans) and allowed Sparks to own an issue (legalizing and taxing Vegas-style gambling) that played very well with the base. In AL-05, Griffith didn't lose because he had the RNC's imprimatur; he lost because he leapt from one party to the other for what looked like opportunistic reasons, much like Arlen Specter before him. Peterson was a joke; James was too divisive; Barber is an outsider from Texas who doesn't have the money or organization to topple freshman Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright.

My "good candidate" theory may not be as sexy an explanation as anti-establishment fever, but it has the virtue of being true—just like last time around in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. That's not to say the country isn't in a "throw the bums out" funk. It is. But sometimes it's worth remembering that politics is always, at heart, about the candidates and the campaigns they run—even when it's about larger forces as well.