Primaries show anti-incumbent mood, but Dems say it could have been worse

Primaries show anti-incumbent mood, but Dems say it could have been worse

Tuesday’s primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania confirmed what lawmakers feared: The incumbency advantage at the ballot box doesn’t necessarily apply this year.

But Democrats, who came away with a critical win in a special election, said they were heartened by the fact that voter disenchantment cuts both ways.

“People are upset, and it shows no party bounds,” said Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.), architect of the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2006 and the 60-seat majority of 2009.

Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem wins Kentucky state House seat in district Trump won by 49 points GOP's tax reform bait-and-switch will widen inequality Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived MORE, the Tea Party-backed insurgent who won the Senate Republican primary in Kentucky, demonstrated that the GOP establishment is just as vulnerable to voter anger.

And Democrat Mark Critz’s special-election victory over Republican Tim Burns in Pennsylvania’s 12th district provided a valuable lesson, Democrats said.

“For Democrats, the lesson is very simple: I think it is that people want us to focus on their problems,” Schumer told The Hill. “I don’t believe they want no government; I think they want a government that is lean but focuses on what is bothering them and helps fix it.”

Republicans countered that voters were expressing displeasure with Democrats’ massive spending spree since taking control of the White House.

“We got a fired-up country, fired up about taxes, spending, debt and Washington takeovers,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Trump health chief backs CDC research on gun violence | GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix | Groups sue over cuts to teen pregnancy program GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix 30 million people will experience eating disorders — the CDC needs to help MORE (Tenn.). “It’s a message, above all other things, to get the debt under control.”

Democrats touted their relatively high turnout in all three states in an attempt to dispel the notion that the party base isn’t fired up. But in Pennsylvania, some say there’s a caveat: It is likely Critz benefited from the intense interest in the primary race between Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D).

Critz stated his opposition to healthcare reform and cap-and-trade legislation and campaigned extensively on a jobs message. While Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 registration advantage in the district, it was the only one in the country that voted for Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes Kerry2020 Dem contenders travel to key primary states When it comes to Colombia, America is in a tough spot 36 people who could challenge Trump in 2020 MORE (D-Mass.) for president in 2004 and backed Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE (R-Ariz.) for the White House in 2008.

House Republican Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRestoring fiscal sanity requires bipartisan courage GOP congressman slams primary rival for Ryan donations Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE (R-Ohio) acknowledged the loss was a setback and said the party needs to raise more money and get organized before November.

“It’s pretty clear that we have to organize and we’ve got to continue working on our agenda project. ... We’ve got to continue to raise resources,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRestoring fiscal sanity requires bipartisan courage GOP congressman slams primary rival for Ryan donations Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE told reporters.

It was the seventh special election Republicans have lost since President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Energy: Dems ask Pruitt to justify first-class travel | Obama EPA chief says reg rollback won't stand | Ex-adviser expects Trump to eventually rejoin Paris accord Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand Ex-US ambassador: Mueller is the one who is tough on Russia MORE took office.

Republicans had tried to make the race about Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who are unpopular in the district, but Critz, a former Murtha staffer, won with a comfortable margin, 53 percent to 45.

Boehner said his party has had a tough time winning these special elections given “the financial disadvantage we have now,” noting that “we’ve got to do better.”

Alexander called the special election in Pennsylvania a “disappointment.” “We’ll have to learn from that,” he said.

Still, Democrats could hardly celebrate outright.

The primary defeat of 30-year incumbent Specter and the failure of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the Arkansas primary — forcing her into a June 8 runoff — shows that voters won’t blindly pull the lever for incumbents.

“There is an anti-incumbent sense,” said Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDems hit stock buybacks in tax law fight Dem senator warns Mueller against issuing Russia report near 2018 election Dem praises gay US Olympian who feuded with Pence MORE Jr. (D-Pa.), who campaigned with Critz. “That’s natural whenever the economy is stressed like it is — I think you’re going to see that.”

Republicans argue the anti-incumbent sentiment is more damaging to Democrats because they control more seats in Congress.

But Democrats say they have learned an important lesson that will guide them over the next five and a half months.

“I think what most people are telling us, whether we’re an incumbent or an incumbent who happens to be running, is that we have to focus intensively on job creation and job preservation,” said Casey.

Democrats pledged a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy after they lost control of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts.

But they have not passed much in the way of jobs legislation. Obama signed a modest $18 billion jobs bill into law in March.

But Democrats have redoubled their efforts to frame a landmark healthcare reform law as an economy-boosting accomplishment and have focused on the job-creating potential of energy and climate change legislation

Schumer said the Democratic jobs message is having “some” impact on voters and “we’ve got to do more of it.”

Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 7:50 p.m.