As convoluted and shot through with bizarre permutations and surprises as it is – not to mention outlandish character attacks – the spectacle of the US midterm elections “is unfolding as it should”. By BROOKS SPECTOR.
It may just seem as if the American electoral system’s 2010 midterm elections have been hogging the calendar for years. And in a way, maybe they have. For Republicans, it began moments after Barack Obama gave his victory speech in Chicago on election night 2008, the election that gave the Democrats a seemingly comfortable majority in both houses of the US Congress. And so, for two years now, Republicans have been taking swipes at Obama’s “exotic background”, the better to chisel away at his popularity back then.
Most recently, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, accused Obama, whose father was a Kenyan economist, of exhibiting something called “Kenyan, anti-colonial behaviour”. Gingrich was drawing on a recent essay in Forbes magazine by the conservative hoplite, Dinesh D’Souza, who seems to have come up with a theory that Obama has been taking directions from the anti-corporate shade of his long-departed father. That Obama only met his father a few times, and that his staunchly white, middle-class American grandparents substantially raised him seem to have eluded D’Souza. The assault on Obama’s cultural affinity, the clear implication that he is neither suitably Christian nor American in his values, is an effort to add a sinister subliminal subtext to his economic agenda, suggesting Obama is oddly indifferent to the effects of his policies on ordinary Americans because, at the end of the day, he doesn’t have anything in common with real Americans.
This Gingrich tantrum has followed what numerous Republican establishment types – and some distinctly un-establishment types as well – have said about Obama for supporting the Cordoba mosque/cultural centre proposal a couple of blocks from New York’s Ground Zero. Rounding out this kind of critique, a week ago, Republican governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, was extraordinarily grudging in acknowledging Obama’s Christian faith, telling anyone who would listen that, “This is a president we know less about than any other president in American history”. You probably have to go back to the assault on Thomas Jefferson’s religious views (he was a non-church going deist) to find rhetoric similar to this stuff.
Explaining this effort and putting it in context for the next election, New York Times writer Matt Bai argues, “Obama’s alleged sympathy for so-called Muslim extremists who would desecrate the World Trade Center site, his socialist African ancestry and his early years in Indonesia ? all of this creates a shadowy archetype that every conservative enclave (fiscal, foreign policy and religious) can find a reason to fear. You can probably expect the tenor of these attacks to grow shriller as 2012 approaches and Republican presidential hopefuls begin courting activists in Iowa.”
But, the continuing economic slump and nearly 10% unemployment in America have made Obama’s party increasingly vulnerable in the coming general election. Accordingly, Republicans have tried hard to make their version of this “exotic”, foreign-ish Barack Obama the prime face of their opposition, the Democrats. Of course, regular Daily Maverick readers will recall that earlier this week we profiled Republican congressman John Boehner’s background and how Democrats are making him and his ties to big tobacco, big business and big banks the face of their campaign. Nobody ever said politics was for sissies.
But beyond these he-said-she-said attacks, the unhappy, testy, irritable mood of the electorate remains crucial in interpreting the primary results, although it is important to remember primary elections tend to attract voters who are already politically active and opinionated. The percentage of the electorate who votes in primaries is usually much lower than half the eligible voters. For this year’s climate, however, besides the electorate’s general grumpiness because of the country’s economic woes, a feeling of “throw the (incumbent) rascals out,” almost regardless of political affiliation, is growing as well.
Besides this, at least among usually Republican voters, the Tea Party movement has taken root as well. Republicans traditionally have been an uneasy coalition of social values conservatives, neo-conservative foreign policy activists and old-style business-orientated small government activists. Increasingly, it is the social conservative, issues voters who became the spine of Republican grassroots campaign apparatus – somewhat similar to the way a shrinking union movement can still supply many of the campaign workers for Democrats in elections, except when a single key issue like an unpopular war galvanises people.
The Tea Party’s new activism, with its volatile mix of libertarian ideas and nativist ideologues, has upset the balance among the Republican “tribes”. It has given the party a new infusion of activist energy, but it may well mean Republican candidates buoyed by the Tea Party movement will be so far from the centre they will be unelectable in November. Republican establishment strategists at first thought the Tea Party enthusiasm would energise the Republican base, but as establishment candidates and long-serving incumbents have been defeated by some increasingly bizarre figures from the Tea Party stable, party elders are starting to worry this may end up helping Democrats eke out wins in a few key senate races where they had almost given up, such as in Delaware, now that Christine O’Donnell has actually become their official candidate.
As things stand now, projections indicate that the Democrats may just – barely – hold onto the Senate with 52 or 53 members out of 100, even though they may lose control of the House of Representatives. And while the Gingrich-style cultural critique of Obama will keep Democrats off-balance, Republican pollster David Winston says these Republican attacks resolve in voter minds something like the following: “The mosque is an interesting point, but tell me how you’re going to get jobs and fix the economy.” To quote Bill Clinton: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
In the specific primary races this week, the Republican establishment is still trying to sort out the meaning and impact of the Tea Party-style insurgency inside their party that has given them Christine O’Donnell, the newly-minted Delaware Senate nominee. On TV, O’Donnell has told the elders that she would accept (but didn’t need) the help of establishment Republicans and that she would harness the power of “the people” to defeat her Democratic opponent in November.
Demonstrating a delicate political nous, O’Donnnell said the GOP establishment was “lazy” and were guilty of political cannibalism by attacking Tea Party-backed candidates like her. As O’Donnell told a major morning TV show: “I think a few of them, perhaps, may have their pride hurt this morning but, you know, I didn’t count on the establishment to win the primary. I’m not counting on them to win the general. I’m counting on the voters of Delaware.” In response, Republican attack dog, Karl Rove said, “There’s just a lot of nutty things she’s been saying that just simply don’t add up.” Republican strategists now concede O’Donnell’s win may put the Delaware senate seat out of reach for Republicans and thereby make it impossible for them to win the overall senate majority. And this comes from an O’Donnell margin of victory of only 3,000 votes out of 55,000 voters in a state with a near 4:1 Democratic majority of registered voters.
Over in New York, another Tea Party-supported candidate, Karl Palatino, a millionaire property developer from Buffalo whose trademark has been his pitbull, Duke, and the catch-phrase that he “is mad as hell” (presumably borrowed from the film, “Network”), it is clear there are still some difficulties for Republicans. The party’s favoured son was Rick Lazio, even though he came down hard on the Cordoba mosque dispute. Palantino now faces Andrew Cuomo, son of the usually adored former governor, Mario Cuomo, leading an unusually unified Democratic Party. Palantino’s victory has finished off the last sliver of the old internationalist liberal Republican heritage of legendary politicians such as Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, former state attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, was supposed to crush her opponents in a four-way race, but she just squeezed past her Tea Party-backed opponent, Ovide Lamontange.
Both parties now face a midterm general election where the highest proportion of voters in two decades say it’s time for their own member of Congress to be replaced, and where Americans are expressing widespread dissatisfaction with Obama’s leadership. The latest joint New York Times/CBS News poll says that, while voters continue to rate Democrats negatively, they view Republicans as even worse.
Thus, despite Obama’s negatives, the overall poll still gives Democrats some hope for the election – especially given the number of Tea Party-esque candidates who have been selected as Republican candidates. The Democrats can still make a last-ditch case for keeping their hold on power, thereby explaining the growing focus on John Boehner’s deal making, smoke-filled room style of politics as the alternative to Democratic control of congress.
Interestingly, the poll also shows that the Tea Party movement has yet to be fully defined for many Americans with nearly 50% of voters saying they are undecided or have not heard enough about the Tea Party to form an opinion. And, looking forward to 2012 – we have to do this now - the poll found that the public has an increasingly negative opinion of Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee.
The Tea Party has managed to make some real scores in the Republican primary season – showing some real political savvy - despite its near political infancy. Starting with a candidate like Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and continuing through Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Joe Miller, candidates carried to wins on the backs of Tea Party enthusiasm have often given the national Republican Party heartburn, but none of them have been clearly un-electable until Christine O’Donnell – and many of this list will probably win in November. The Tea Party hasn’t had it all its own way, of course. Carly Fiorina rather than Chuck DeVore is the Republican nominee for the California Senate, and John McCain rather than J.D. Hayworth is the nominee in Arizona, for example.
But the defeat that will almost certainly be O’Donnell’s fate in November may well serve as a reality check for the party as it moves towards finding its champion for 2012. And O’Donnell’s fate will become the defining cautionary tale about caring only about ideological purism. But in the meantime, the Republicans are still ruminating on what to do next. Ed Rogers, a veteran Washington lobbyist and GOP strategist, said. “The 'Party of No' is being run by its leaderless 'Hell No!' caucus. I fear on election night, we in the GOP will revel in our purity while Pelosi and Reid celebrate their re-election.”
Other notable wins included: Embattled Congressman Charles Rangel won a Democratic primary in the race for his New York City seat, despite accusations from the House ethics committee related to his personal finances; former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich beat Tea Party-backed Brian Murphy for the Republican governor nomination in the state; and former congressman Joseph DioGuardi won the Republican senate primary in New York.
Meanwhile, among Democrats, Washington, DC, mayor Adrian Fenty took it on the chin from City Council chairman Vincent Ward. In Washington, a city with a 9:1 Democratic majority, a primary win is tantamount to winning the election. Fenty’s defeat is a bit of a shock to the Obama administration’s strong support for Fenty’s tough love education reform efforts and this may end up putting the case for education system reform in big cities on the back foot for other cities as well. Maybe there’s something about issues that get up the noses of teachers’ unions.
Hawaii's primary on 18 September is the final primary election. Then we can get busy prognosticating about victors in the actual election ... and then get ready to handicap candidates for the presidency in 2012. DM
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Photo: Delaware Republican senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell, "the new Sarah Palin", gesture while speaking about winning in the Republican primary at her campaign victory event in Dover, Delaware, September 14, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer.