An angry current swells

Tons of paper and ink and countless hours of airtime are being devoted to drawing some meaning from Tuesday’s election results. I suffer no illusion that I can sort it all out in this column — but the temptation to comment is just too great to ignore. 

My colleague Mark Mellman wrote Wednesday in a piece filed before the votes were cast that “four antis” would shape the outcome: anti-politics, anti-incumbent, anti-establishment and anti-Democratic. The vote largely supported his thesis, although there is evidence, especially out of Pennsylvania’s 12th district special election, that the electorate is less anti-Democratic and less anti-incumbent than most of us have assumed. Jobs seemed to trump all else in that socially conservative district, and the Murtha legacy of creating paychecks transferred smoothly to Mark Critz, who will have to wage this argument all over again in the November election.

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Anti-incumbency obviously played a role in Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) being forced into a runoff with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. But I would argue that a much stronger driver of the anti-Lincoln vote was a combination of voter anger with the establishment and frustration with politics-as-usual. In Lincoln’s case, the anti-establishment case was made by an unusual coalition of liberal groups supporting President Barack Obama and organized labor.

She incurred the wrath of groups like MoveOn with her lukewarm support of healthcare reform and her outright opposition to the public option as part of healthcare reform. Although one would expect Arkansas voters to be leery of the public option, the liberal groups succeeded in branding her a friend of big business and Wall Street. Labor originally disagreed with her over “card-check” legislation that would have made it easier to organize union shops. Again, that’s the sort of measure that one would expect to be unpopular in conservative Arkansas — but it served as the foundation of a campaign positioning her as a friend of special interests.

As the campaign evolved, organized labor spent about $5 million on television, mail and door-to-door campaigning spreading the word that Blanche Lincoln was a friend of big business and Wall Street, not Arkansas workers and Main Street. Obviously, it worked. Anti-incumbency melded with frustration with the establishment, and Lincoln suffered for it. One who had run successfully as a conservative Arkansas mother became viewed as being in the pocket of Wall Street, just like all those other incumbents in Washington who ignored the needs of voters back home.

There can be no doubt that anti-establishment fever contributed to the landslide victory of Rand Paul in the Kentucky U.S. Senate primary. The only candidate in this round of primaries running openly as a Tea Party candidate, Paul challenged both the GOP and Democrat establishments. A major theme of his campaign was opposition to Obama and his policies. But equally prominent was the support his opponent got from Kentucky’s leading Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the most powerful GOPer in his state. Paul relished the opposition from the party establishment and even went so far as to suggest that, if elected, he would probably not vote for his senior senator for reelection as minority leader.

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So my takeaway from this important round of primaries this week is that politicians of both parties should fear being tied to the establishment in all its forms. Americans are fed up with those who run things — they seem mostly to have run things into the ground. Whether it is a Wall Street trader, a bank CEO, the head of an oil company or a health insurer, most Americans no longer trust them. They make cozy deals with politicians in Washington to bend the rules in their favor and then expect the politicians to bail them out if they get in trouble by going too far. To most Americans, it seems the politicians are willing to accommodate them.

Voters are mad as hell at those who control the levers of power. Their anger has grown into a wide and deep populist current in American politics — a current that will sweep out of office those who are seen as too cozy with the establishment. Just how big a change that makes in the new Congress we’ll have to wait and see. But any politician who wants to survive November 2010 had best learn to flow with that current rather than be perceived trying to fight it.

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