The Private Intellectual
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Thursday, May 13, 2010  

Better to be Lucky than Good

Speaking of unforced errors, it's been interesting to watch establishment-backed candidates from both parties flounder in Pennsylvania and Nevada. In Pennsylvania, the once little-known Congressman Joe Sestak sensed an opportunity with Arlen Specter's party-switch. The newly-minted Democrat would not be liked or trusted by the party's rank and file, while a GOP primary that was Pat Toomey's for the taking set up a favorable general election matchup for anyone but the discredited Specter. While rational incentives and irrational caution caused the state and national Democratic powers to line up behind their 59th senator, the voters were never really sold on him. After a year as a Democrat--and a pretty reliable one, at that--and an expensive campaign touting his new bona fides, Specter's primary numbers haven't budged. Meanwhile, Sestak has really taken off--despite being by some accounts a less than stellar campaigner--and matches up much better against Toomey than Specter does in general election polling. Well played, Mr. Sestak. At least half of winning elections is picking the right opponent.

In Nevada, it seems to be the Republican establishment that has laid an egg in the form of Sue Lowden, whose chickens-for-checkups health care gaffe has quickly become the stuff of political legend. Thankfully, the national Republicans did not manage to clear the field for this not-terribly-smart person, but the dustup has given Harry Reid a chance to come back from the political dead. There's a lot of campaign left, but it's at least plausible that the worst is behind him, thanks largely to a really poor GOP field.

Recruiting failures are starting to have a serious impact on the shape of this year's races. Russ Feingold (D-WI) dodged a big, lumbering bullet when former governor Tommy Thompson took a pass. A number of other Democrats are facing easier races than they might had first or even second-tier opponents jumped in. But Republicans have enjoyed some good luck, too. Obama appointed a number of strong potential Senate candidates to the cabinet (a bizarre maneuver my brother and I have termed 'Gilibranding'), not only setting up a situation where John McCain and Charles Grassley had to worry mostly about their right flank, but also depriving the party of strong challengers in what has shaped up to be a year marked more specifically by anti-incumbent sentiment than by any great swell towards Republicans in general. Republican-held seats in Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, and Kansas all ought to be in play, and yet may be, but the failure to find big-name candidates is being felt. Mike Castle looks set to walk into a Senate seat in Delaware. And the less said right now about Alexi, the better. This is not good.

As it is, the fall elections will be fought mostly on the Democrats' half of the field. Democrats have four seriously vulnerable incumbents (I'm not counting Barbara Boxer here, since I just don't see her losing), two open seats (ND and DE) that are essentially write-offs, and two more that are not looking so hot. Republicans have at present no obviously vulnerable incumbents and four, maybe five open seats that could be in play (including Florida). This is heavily a matter of bad objective circumstances for the party in power, but partly the result of mistakes and failures that didn't need to happen.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:01 PM
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