Friday, May 21, 2010

Tuesday Showed It’s Wise to Expect Unexpected

By Stuart Rothenberg

What a really weird week.

Rep. Mark Souder, a socially conservative Republican from Indiana, admits he had an affair with a staffer and steps down from his seat. Squeaky-clean Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) admits he “misspoke” about his military record but says he won’t allow anyone to “impugn my record of service to our country.” And primary voters in Pennsylvania and Kentucky appear to prefer the more ideological candidates in primaries.

Souder’s resignation means local Republican leaders will pick a new nominee — something that didn’t work well twice in New York special elections last year. It’s a recipe for hurt feelings and attacks against the party’s “handpicked” candidate at a time when party insiders aren’t at their most popular.

This doesn’t mean that Democrats have a strong chance of winning the open seat, given the district’s bent and the tendency of special elections to help the party not holding the White House when the president is unpopular. But it does mean that the Republican nominee ought not take a victory for granted.

In the Nutmeg State, Blumenthal’s out-of-the-blue scandal is unwelcome news for national and state Democrats.

Blumenthal’s past statements will now be dissected by state reporters looking for other examples of embellishment and exaggeration, and if they find more examples, it will raise questions about his record, in addition to his character.

Does this mean that Connecticut is a tossup? Has the race changed so dramatically that neither party has an advantage?

When in the middle of a storm — meteorological or political — the best advice usually is to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass until it is safe to assess the damage. We don’t know how the Blumenthal controversy will develop, so I’m inclined to see what the voters think about the controversy before changing a rating.

Obviously, the dust-up over the state attorney general’s misstatements creates an opening for Republicans, raising new doubts about Blumenthal’s appeal. Still, this is Connecticut, and the eventual GOP nominee will have to overcome plenty of hurdles of his or her own.

Rand Paul’s thumping of Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson for the GOP Senate nomination in the Bluegrass State can’t be ignored.

Grayson raised some eyebrows by closing with two TV spots that emphasized his endorsements by high-profile state and national Republican leaders. Observers thought the decision odd given the electorate’s mood.

But Grayson’s media consultant Larry McCarthy, whom I have praised over the years and still believe is a master ad-maker, told me that the final ads weren’t picked out of the air.

“We tested negatives, the value of the [Sen. Mitch] McConnell and [Rep. Hal] Rogers endorsements and other things, and it wasn’t a close call. The data suggested strongly that [what we chose] was the right message to do,” McCarthy told me.

Paul’s early money made him a credible alternative to Grayson, who was preferred by national GOP strategists and most big-name Kentucky Republicans but was widely regarded as less than a compelling personality.

Can Paul win in the fall? Republicans who were initially skeptical about his electability now think that he could win. But they remain extremely worried about his prospects.

Veteran Republican campaign operatives fear that Democrats will successfully highlight some of his controversial past statements, and they worry that he has an additional six months to make a major mistake or two that could cost him the race. They also note that he has run a strong race so far.

Kentucky Democratic nominee Jack Conway’s narrow primary win also means problems for Democrats, because they too will have to find a way to unite after a bitter primary. Supporters of Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D), more rural and culturally conservative, won’t necessarily gravitate to Conway in the general election.

The instant analysis of “outsider” victories Tuesday isn’t wrong — it just presents only part of the picture.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D) lost in Pennsylvania not because he was an insider as much as because he was a party switcher without a pre-existing base in his new party — and an opportunist at that. But Paul certainly qualifies as an “outsider,” and some “establishment-backed” candidates for Congress (for example, Republican Mary Beth Buchanan in Pennsylvania’s 4th district and incumbent Democratic Rep. Tim Holden in Pennsylvania’s 17th district) performed much worse than expected.

On the other hand, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D) turned back a primary challenge, and former U.S. Attorney Tom Marino (R) won his primary in Pennsylvania’s 10th district. Kentucky’s Conway was also backed by his state party’s establishment, and not a single House incumbent on Tuesday seeking renomination was defeated. So far this cycle, 98 percent of all incumbents seeking re-election have been renominated.

The defeat of Republican Tim Burns in the Pennsylvania 12th district special election obviously is the biggest blow to the GOP, which hoped to show the existence of an early wave building against Democrats and President Barack Obama. That didn’t happen, in part because of strong Democratic turnout in the race and statewide.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call and on on May 20, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.