There were no truly establishment candidates—literally, zero—in Tuesday’s set of marquee primaries in Colorado and Connecticut. And it’s probably better that way, because if there had been, they would have lost.
The value of incumbency has been the open question since last summer, when constituent anger in town halls across the country bubbled over in convenient loops for cable-news producers. Holding office used to be the best argument for being able to keep that office—using the perks of being in power as a campaign advantage. But that was before a Congress that moved at a glacial pace, had been accused of doing either too little for the economy or far too much, and had an approval rating lower than Levi Johnston’s chance of becoming mayor of Wasilla. The electoral value of holding office now veers into the negative.
Or so Tuesday’s results seemed to suggest. The closest person to a Washington incumbent was Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed to office just last year. Washington doesn’t work, he told voters, and I know because I’ve been there, but not long enough to be part of the problem. Not a bad case to make, considering the past year has been a highpoint of dysfunction in Senate history. It didn’t help his argument—which his opponent, former state Rep. Andrew Romanoff pointed out—that none other than President Obama, head of the current establishment, stuck his neck out for Bennet. But maybe because Bennet outspent Romanoff’s $500,000 almost fivefold speaks to Tuesday’s bigger lesson, that incumbency talks, but money usually talks louder.
Just ask Linda McMahon, the Connecticut wrestling executive vying to replace retiring Sen. Chris Dodd. McMahon has vowed to spend about $50 million from her own pocket to send herself to Washington, but it only took $22 million to slide comfortably over former congressman Rob Simmons to the GOP nomination. McMahon also ran on cleaning up Washington—a perennial argument on the verge of becoming trite, but in McMahon’s case, it worked. In the weeks before the election, independent voters flocked handily toward McMahon, putting her now in a dead heat with Democrat Dick Blumenthal, who secured his party’s nomination unopposed.
The one surprise of the night was Connecticut’s Democratic primary, which featured the political comeback of former Joe Lieberman challenger Ned Lamont. Early in the race, Lamont appeared poised to secure the nomination for governor over former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, but in yet another example of preelection polling getting it wrong, Lamont finished 16 points behind Malloy, denying America of the kind of political comeback it tends to love.
If nothing else, Tuesday night’s flight of contests cemented the conventional wisdom that it’s not just Democratic candidates in trouble this fall, but all officeholders. The advantage, just based on raw statistics, would go to the GOP; holding fewer seats means more to gain. Yet never before has running as an outsider held so much promise. The challenge for Washington’s elites, then, is to admit that the government isn’t working, but then claim that the dysfunction is everyone else’s fault.