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08.25.10

The Anti-Incumbent Narrative Falters

Angry voters expected to storm the polls Tuesday failed to sweep the primaries—leaving a deep-pocketed businessman an upset winner in Florida, McCain in the driver’s seat, and Palin’s “center-right” curse ineffective.

The narrative possesses superhuman powers in politics. It drives coverage and manufactures what passes for conventional wisdom. But sometimes results don’t fit the narrative. That’s when Tip O’Neill’s truism “all politics is local” gets trotted out.

Tuesday night, conventional narratives about the angry, anti-incumbent 2010 cycle didn’t apply with any consistency in the five states where primaries were held. And so, as Tip O’Neill once said….

Florida was perhaps the night’s biggest prize and serves as case in point. In the Democratic primary for Senate, Rep. Kendrick Meek, whose mother held his seat before him, easily won a victory over billionaire Jeff Greene, who spent more than $20 million of his real estate gains in his bid for the nomination. (Can’t imagine why a real estate mogul would be having trouble connecting with voters this year in the mortgage default capital of the country.)

It’s a big country, and we shouldn’t be surprised when attempts to broadly impose a national narrative miss the mark.

But anyone looking for a consistent message from the Sunshine State has to ignore the Republican primary race for governor, where businessman Rick Scott spent $50 million of his own money to pull off an upset win against the conservative Attorney General and former Rep. Bill McCollum. I’ve written about the controversies that have dogged Scott over the $1.6 billion in Medicaid fraud racked up by the health-care company he founded [link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-08-05/tea-partiers-who-got-rich-off-big-government]. Expect new scrutiny of Scott this week because of an ad he recently released, subtly called “Obama’s Mosque” [Link: http://littlegreenfootballs.com/article/36964_Rick_Scott-_Obamas_Mosque], and questions over whether that tainted Hail Mary helped him pull ahead in the primary.

Mark McKinnon: 5 Lessons from the Primaries

Conor Friedersdorf: McCain Beats Talk Radio

Complete coverage of the primaries
Also defying the anti-incumbent narrative was John McCain, who ended up shellacking J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman and talk radio host who’d attempted to primary the former GOP presidential nominee from the right. A few months ago, it looked like Hayworth was gaining ground on the old fighter pilot, but some well-timed pivots to the right on issues like the border fence, and an unnecessary repudiation of his “maverick” moniker, as well as $20 million, made McCain’s an easy win. No matter who wins the Democratic nomination, McCain is likely to sail what will presumably be a final term in the Senate. Arizona is 30 percent independent now, and McCain won his last re-election with 70 percent of the vote. And even conservatives who opposed McCain have to admit that his win Tuesday night was a far better outcome than Hayworth winning the seat—if they care about winning general elections. McCain’s consistency on criticizing excessive spending from both parties could serve as a model for GOP messaging this fall.

It’s a big country, and we shouldn’t be surprised when attempts to broadly impose a national narrative miss the mark. One thing hasn’t changed, however: 2010 still has a midterm election packed with all the drama usually reserved for a presidential race.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.