Woe for GOP incumbents

Politically, it’s been a tough year. The electoral carnage is everywhere. You have to wonder what the party leadership is thinking, and whether the rank and file is poised to revolt.

I’m talking about congressional Republicans, of course.

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It’s no secret voters are as disdainful toward Washington as ever. But before pundits predict political massacre for Democrats this November, they should look at what voters have already done.

Scott Brown made national news by winning the seat once held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), disrupting Democrats’ 60-vote Senate majority. But less attention was paid to House Republicans’ losing record in special elections since President Barack Obama assumed office. In three of the four contests deemed competitive, the Democratic candidate prevailed. But those were open seats. What about Democratic incumbents?

It’s true that Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) lost his primary last month. But his defeat came after spending 44 years as a Republican and may have turned on Specter’s cringe-inducing admission that his party switch was more about politics than principle. By contrast, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), a conservative so loyal to his party that he serves as a member of the Republican leadership team, was handily defeated in his May primary.

This week, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), written off by the chattering class, beat back a well-funded primary challenge. And in Nevada, a bloody GOP primary produced a right-wing nominee, moving Sen. Harry Reid (D) from the toss-up category to “Lean Reid,” according to political handicapper Charlie Cook.

Tuesday was rough for Republicans. Incumbent Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) lost the first round of his primary by double digits and faces a runoff this month. Three of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” candidates, picked to receive financial and organizational support from the national party, went down in flames.

The GOP’s troubles may also be reverberating at the state level. After Scott Brown’s victory last January, incumbent Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) was thought by some analysts to be on political life support. But despite a million-dollar ad campaign launched by the D.C.-based Republican Governors Association, Patrick’s poll numbers have risen by double digits over the past two months. Contrast that with

Nevada Gov. and former GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons (R), another incumbent who bit the dust in his primary this week. Farther west, former Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) lost his bid for the GOP Senate nomination by more than 30 points.

So what accounts for all the bloodshed in what was billed as a big year for the national GOP? Voting against President Barack Obama’s health reform law was supposed to boost Republicans in competitive primaries, firing up the base in their favor. Tell that to reform opponents Bennett and Inglis. GOP candidates thought tying local Democrats to Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was a recipe for success. Wrong again. Washington Republicans had the money and momentum to make the difference in several key local contests. They failed.

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Truth is, there’s no secret formula for either party to capitalize on the national mood — a frustration with Beltway politics that helped carry Barack Obama to the White House.

The best advice for congressional incumbents? Don’t hide in the tall grass of Capitol Hill, hoping angry voters pass you by. Do something to truly change the way Washington works.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.