The primary victories of Republican Rand Paul in Kentucky and Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania are being widely hailed as a rejection of the establishment—upstarts who overcame the opposition of their party’s leaders, swept in by angry voters in no mood to take their cues from the bosses.
In other words, voters are turning the old axiom of Chicago politics—“we don’t want nobody nobody sent”—on its head.
“The way you keep your seat is not to become more independent but to become more dependent,” said strategist Tad Devine.
Obama’s no Mayor Daley, but his Chicago-heavy political team sought to play favorites—and lost—in Pennsylvania, backing the Democratic incumbent, the recently recruited GOP convert, Arlen Specter.
That could create an awkward dynamic—a candidate heading toward November owing the president nothing, at a time when Obama, in order to see his agenda through in Washington, desperately needs the loyalty of everyone in his party’s ranks.
The White House and Specter’s victorious primary rival, Sestak, will now have to engage in the same kind of rapprochement that insurgents made with the machine back when Daley Senior ran Obama’s adopted hometown.
“They will reach a détente very quickly because they know that they are in the same party and they need each other,” said veteran Chicago political consultant Don Rose about Sestak and the Democrats.
Rose says Obama knows this dynamic first-hand.
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• Mark McKinnon: Three Election Lessons “I think that’s something Barack understood from the get-go,” Rose said. “Because when he got his state Senate seat without the organization, he voted with it. He made friends with some of the worst hacks down there when he needed them. When he was a senator, the first thing he did after winning the seat was sit down with Daley. Barack knew the game from previous observation.”
A similar dynamic is playing out on the Republican side. Paul, the ophthalmologist and anti-tax crusader whose father, Ron Paul, was a grass-roots libertarian sensation in the 2008 presidential campaign, beat out Trey Grayson for the GOP nomination—despite the fact that Grayson was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked man for the vacant Senate seat. McConnell, too, is no Daley—but in Kentucky, he casts a pretty long shadow over Republican politics. Not for nothing does the party headquarters in Frankfort, Kentucky bear his name.
But look for any breach between the GOP establishment powerhouse and the Tea Party-backed Paul to be mended very quickly.
“If Rand Paul is the nominee, Mitch McConnell will endorse him the next day and campaign for him,” prominent Republican activist and fundraiser Fred Malek said, in an interview before the results were in. “I would do anything within my power to help.” Malek added that he thought backing the losing horse wouldn’t hurt McConnell’s standing with his Republican peers.
Obama may be more adept than most at bridging the gap between insurgent and establishment. After all, he’s played both parts during his political rise.
As a young community organizer in Chicago, Obama was inspired by Harold Washington, the anti-establishment candidate who, in 1983, became the first African-American to occupy the mayor’s office—despite virulent opposition from key cogs in the city’s Democratic machine.
Perhaps inspired by Washington’s example, Obama bucked the party bosses and their anointed candidates on his way to the Illinois state Senate as well as in an unsuccessful run for Congress. But by time he decided to seriously consider running for the presidency, Obama was cozying up to the machine, promising to support Mayor Richard Daley’s run for a sixth term in office.
Incumbents around the country will no doubt be studying the paths Sestak and Paul took to victory Tuesday night. Will these politicians also run from their party and embrace the insurgent ethos?
Maybe. Strategist Tad Devine, who is advising a number of independent candidates this election cycle, says that despite all the anti-establishment anger among voters this year, many incumbents may wind up embracing their party leaders, rather than running from them—as a source of aid and comfort in the midst of a bewildering political storm.
“The way you keep your seat is not to become more independent but to become more dependent [on your party],” said Devine. “People are going to say, ‘I’ve got to lock down my base. I’ve got to make sure I don’t get beat in a primary.’ That may be a little perverse, but that’s what I think will happen.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.