Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Some Brief Thoughts on "Anti-Incumbency" Fever From Yesterday's Elections

The basis for this post is a pronounced media focus on a supposed anti-incumbent mood sweeping the country. Obviously, evidence for this mood will be easier to read in the general elections this November, but from last night's votes there seems to be little to back up claims of an anti-incumbent movement. Yet.

Here in Iowa, the Republican party picked a former Governor - Terry Branstad - to run against the current Governor - Chet Culver - in November. The Tea-Party backed, anti-government candidate in this race, Bob Vander Plaats, performed well in highly-populated Polk County, but lost to Branstad by 10 percentage points. In the Congressional races where anti-incumbency (read: lack of political experience) was an issue, the voters soundly rejected the premise. With seven candidates running against one another for the chance to challenge Democrat Leonard Boswell of Iowa's 3rd in November, the only one with significant political experience (as former Mayor of Urbandale, and a State Senator), Brad Zaun surprised everyone by garnering more than 50 percent of the vote (avoiding a Republican convention for which the date had already been set). Certainly Zaun was the favorite, with name recognition, and a strong base of support in Des Moines' suburbs, but no one thought he would so handily beat his opponents, including those with Tea Party backing and credentials. The same held true in Iowa's 2nd, where Ottumwa optometrist Mariannette Miller-Meeks once again won the Republican primary for a challenge to Dave Loebsack. Finally, in the Democratic primary race to oppose incumbent Republican Senator Charles Grassley, former candidate for Governor and long-time Democratic party member Roxanne Conlin, with nearly 78 percent of the vote, shut out her two, less-funded opponents. in Iowa, in other words, there was little evidence of anti-incumbency.

Nationally, a couple of races stood out. In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln held off a strong challenge from the left, beating the well-funded and union-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. In California, two women reigned in elections with no incumbents, with former HP exec Carly Fiorina winning the chance to go up against Senator Barbara Boxer, and former EBay exec Meg Whitman winning for a run against former Governor Jerry Brown for the State's executive seat.

What does all this mean? Hard to say, though two things seem clear: Republicans, especially those pragmatic ones in Iowa, are more interested in picking candidates who give them the best chance at winning rather than those who fit some rigid ideological mold - though in some cases these two may overlap. Secondly, as it always has been in politics (and always will be), money talks louder than anything else. Branstad and Conlin were easily the best funded candidates in their respective Iowa races, and the same holds true with Fiorina and Whitman in California (with Whitman spending over $70 million of her own money to attempt to win a seat that paid just over $212,000 in 2009)

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