Good news for Democrats — they don’t hate their incumbents very much

The Democrats and those who wish them well have been high-fiving over last night’s election returns. This piece by John Harris of Politico is typical. He writes: “President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, who have been starved for good news through much of 2010, finally received a generous helping Tuesday night.”
Harris supports this claim with two points – first that outcomes on the Republican side have produced candidates who are vulnerable and second that outcomes on the Democratic side undercut the view that incumbents face an angry electorate, determined to punish insiders and professional politician and eager to embrace ideological insurgents.
Harris might be correct on the first point. Frankly, I don’t know whether in Coloardo, which Harris focuses on, Ken Buck is more vulnerable than Jane Norton, the Republican he narrowly defeated. A Rasmussen poll from the end of last month suggested that if Norton was a stronger candidate than Buck, she was only marginally so.
Harris’ second point – that results from last night provide comfort to those who fear an anti-incumbent wave – has no merit that I can detect. First, the fact that Democrats aren’t defeating their incumbents in the primary tells us virtually nothing about whether incumbents are in trouble. Republicans weren’t defeating their incumbents in 2006 primaries either. Even Conrad Burns easily won his primary in Montana. Drawing comfort from the success of incumbents in their own primary reminds me of Pauline Kael’s confidence that Richard Nixon would not be re-elected, since everyone she knew was for George McGovern.
The key question is whether independents feel the anti-incumbent urge. This year’s polling consistently suggests that they do. So, I would argue, does the fact that where possible independents seem to be voting for Republican candidates in primary elections. Finally, in Colorado itself, 35 percent of voters view Sen. Bennet very unfavorably. And last night, both Republican candidates outpolled Bennet. Norton, the GOP loser, Norton, received 197,143 votes to Bennet’s 183,521.
Second, the fact that Bennet was able to hold off a Democratic insurgent, and that Blanche Lincoln did so earlier (a fact Harris also cites), doesn’t even show that Democrats are enamored with incumbents. Even with the support of President Obama and former president Clinton, Lincoln received only around 52 percent of the vote. Bennet, who significantly outspent his opponent, managed 54 percent. These numbers don’t impress me.
2010 might, against the odds, turn out to be an okay year for Democratic incumbents. But the election results from last night don’t remotely refute the common wisdom that, as a general matter, this will be an anti-incumbent year.


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