Primary Night

06.27.12

Incumbents Charles Rangel, Orrin Hatch Beat Back Primary Challenges

The anti-incumbent wave that claimed Sen. Richard Lugar this primary season was driven back Tuesday night with convincing wins by embattled Rep. Charles Rangel and Sen. Orrin Hatch. John Avlon on what it means for November.

The RINO hunters and DINO hunters took a beating Tuesday night.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch easily defeated a Tea Party challenge. Left-wingnut and Mugabe-aficionado Charles Barron was decimated by New York Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, despite the support of big labor in his Brooklyn congressional district. And in Harlem, Charles Rangel survived the most serious primary challenge of his 42-year congressional career.

So much for the anti-incumbent narrative of 2012. Somewhere in exile, Nicolas Sarkozy must be feeling a bit jealous.

But in the essentially one-party states of Utah and New York, the Republican and Democratic primaries produced results that reflected the strength of the establishment and the power of financial advantage.

Not coincidentally, Mitt Romney won the Utah primary, the final Republican primary contest of 2012, by 90 percent, his strongest showing in any state to date. No doubt a Romney strategist stuck in North End headquarters is imagining how much easier this campaign would have been if the candidate had run for governor of Utah after the Olympics instead of Massachusetts—no Mitt-flops would have been necessary.

Hatch’s win has the most national significance. RINO-hunters had their sights set on Hatch since they toppled his longtime Senate colleague Bob Bennett in a 2010 convention coup, elevating Tea Partier Mike Lee to the Senate instead. The 78-year old Hatch’s sins were similar—too long in Washington and too friendly with members of the opposition party, especially (gasp!) Ted Kennedy.

The subsequent effort to unseat Hatch began almost two years ago and attracted former Republican state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who ran as a “Conservative for U.S. Senate” and accused the most senior Republican of committing “fiscal child abuse”—a charge that did not age well in the Sandusky news cycle.

Eventually, Tea Party–backing groups like Freedom Works and Club for Growth declined to follow through on their RINO-hunting threats, perhaps reluctant to anger the man who could be the next Finance Committee chairman if the GOP retakes control of the Senate. Ultimately, Hatch’s win was buoyed by his long-standing record and a 10–1 spending advantage over Liljenquist, which translated to a 2–1 margin of victory. One lesson from Utah is that RINO hunting works best in conventions rather than open elections.

The Brooklyn congressional primary contest between New York City Council Member Charles Barron and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries attracted national attention in part because it was a test of union ground game versus financial advantage and establishment backing. But the real attraction was Barron’s steady stream of incitements over his political career, beginning with the Black Panthers and extending to his time in the City Council, which was most notable for his inviting Zimbabwe’s land-confiscating leader Robert Mugabe to City Hall. Kind words for Castro and Gaddafi—and unkind words for the state of Israel—helped seal Barron’s reputation as an unreconstructed left-wing radical with a weakness for anti-Western dictators.

The enthusiasm for purging senior statesmen in favor of insurgent alternatives pushed by activists shows at least some signs of waning.

Most shocking, however, was Barron’s endorsement by the retiring incumbent Ed Towns and the powerful local union DC-37 and its parent AFSCME, who objected to Jeffries’s pro-charter-school stand. But the ground-game advantage those union endorsements could have given Barron were ultimately outweighed by the increasingly diverse demographics of the redrawn district and the decided financial advantage Jeffries had from the New York Democratic establishment, especially Sen. Charles Schumer, who did not want an embarrassment such as Barron to characterize the party going forward.

Rangel, the dean of the New York congressional delegation, was fighting for his political life in a redrawn Harlem district that for the first time was majority Hispanic. Rangel faced a five-person field led by two especially strong contenders, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat and Clyde Williams, a former Clinton White House official whose wife, Mona Sutphen, served as deputy chief of staff for policy in the Obama administration.

Rangel’s charmed political life came to an abrupt end in 2010, when he was censured by the House of Representatives for failing to pay taxes on various properties and was forced to give up his position as the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee. This time, Rangel was denied his usual rubber-stamped newspaper endorsements, most notably that of The New York Times, which backed Williams. President Obama declined to endorse his onetime close ally as well, choosing to sit this primary out. In the end, Rangel’s legendary local status and a divided field meant that he was able to win his 22nd consecutive Democratic primary and return to Congress in the fall, as general elections are an afterthought in this district, which he first won by defeating the also legendary but disgraced Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970.

Tuesday night’s results pushed back the anti-incumbent tide we have seen in recent primaries, like Indiana, where Sen. Richard Lugar was defeated by the Tea Party state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. In one-party states where the primary effectively serves as the general election, too many citizens are denied competitive elections in the fall, but the enthusiasm for purging senior statesmen in favor of insurgent alternatives pushed by activists shows at least some signs of waning.

Most striking, if not surprising, is the clear correlation between results and money raised, overwhelming even the vaunted labor-union ground game. It is a dynamic we saw play out in the Wisconsin recall earlier this month and again Tuesday night—an omen for the multibillion-dollar state-by-state presidential fight we face in the fall.