Breaking down primaries

Tuesday’s rash of primary elections created some real excitement, especially following the dramatic debut of Stephen Strasburg as a warm-up act while we waited for the polls to close. But what was the message for candidates and those of us who follow their campaigns nearly as closely as we will the Nationals’ pitching rotation this year? Best as I can tell, the message is that something very important is happening in this country and most of us are not exactly sure what it is.

While no incumbent should rest easy, Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D) impressive though narrow win in Arkansas suggests that incumbency isn’t the whole answer. In fact, those results and a few others around the country suggest that voters are angrier with “politics” than they are with officeholders — as I wrote here a few weeks ago.

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Lincoln turned organized labor into “the establishment.” The AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME and other unions decided they had the weight to exact retribution on a senator who didn’t vote their party line. Her sins were not to support “card-check” and her refusal to fight for a “public option” as part of healthcare reform.

Either vote could have cost her reelection. Once POTUS signaled that the public option wasn’t a “must-have” in this round of reform, there was no reason for her to fall on her sword for unions with little representation in her state. Labor didn’t see it that way, however, and made a very big point out of teaching her a lesson.

The people of Arkansas, however, saw this as a purely political play and rejected labor’s strategy as just one more self-serving maneuver. With maybe a touch too much glee, one White House official has been widely quoted as saying “organized labor just flushed $10 million down the toilet.” That money could have made the difference in a number of close House and Senate races come November.

One such race that may not be so close after Tuesday is the reelection campaign of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid got a big break on election night when former State Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, almost entirely an unknown a few months ago, surged past two opponents and won the Republican nomination to oppose Reid. The former front-runner in that race, Sue Lowden, was recorded by Reid’s campaign suggesting we should return to a barter system to pay for healthcare — prompting TV commercials and a rash of “chicken suits” to appear in the Nevada desert. The angry Republican base needed someone to turn to, and the Tea Party was there, along with a big pile of cash from the Club for Growth. Angle easily defeated her two Republican opponents, and Reid now faces a vulnerable, gaffe-prone candidate with about 10 percent of his cash reserves, no organization and little experience as a campaigner. Nevadans are angry, and this is a year of surprises, but it looks as though the Tea Party right wing of the GOP may have fielded a candidate with little or no chance of knocking off the majority leader who seemed so vulnerable just weeks ago.

California has its lessons for us as well. As regular readers know, I subscribe to the theory that waves that rise in California often roll for 3,000 miles across the country, changing the political landscape.

This November we’ll see two wealthy businesswomen with virtually no political experience take on two “professional politicians” in the persons of former Gov. Jerry Brown and incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) — two ultimate outsiders versus two classic insiders. But perhaps the most significant outcome of California’s primary was little-watched Prop 14, which created an open primary system in California. Candidates won’t run with party labels. The top two vote-getters in each primary go head to head in the general. “A pox on all your houses,” the voters said. “We’re tired of partisan politics, so we’ll just do away with parties.”

While no one believes those who have wielded power for so long won’t still find a way to do it, the message is clear that Californians won’t be paying much attention to political labels any longer. That is the pebble that could cause a ripple that will turn into a wave that will greatly change how elections are won in this country.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com