3 Lessons from Today's Elections

Tuesday’s vote is the biggest yet of the midterm campaign, and incumbents are on the run. GOP strategist Mark McKinnon on Specter’s big mistake, Lincoln’s way out, and the Tea Party’s best hope.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

When it comes to politics, the media always prefer a big meta- story that includes controversy, consequences, and implications. It’s so much easier on the headline writers. So for Tuesday’s primaries, they’d like to see any of the following stories: “Unions Assert Muscle.” Or “Incumbents Thrown Overboard.” Or perhaps “Tea Party Wins Big,” and even “Obama Rebuked.”

It’s more likely to be some murkier mix. But even before the results are in, some trends and lessons are clearly evident.

Specter may as well have printed bumper stickers that said, “It’s not about you. It’s about me.”

• “I can win” is not a good message. Neither is “He can win.”

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter did something unheard of for a politician. He told the truth. He admitted the obvious when he switched parties. He didn’t say the party had left him. He didn’t say it was a matter of principle. He said the polls suggested he was more likely to get reelected if he became a Democrat. So he did. You could hear the subsequent collective groan from the political-consultant community. Specter may as well have printed bumper stickers that said, “It’s not about you. It’s about me.”

Benjamin Sarlin: A Big Night for the LeftMargaret Carlson: Why Specter Went Down Samuel P. Jacobs: Will the Insurgents Sell Out? John Avlon: Throw the Bums Out! Big Fat Story: The 4 Biggest Midterm Battles Richard Wolffe: Inside Obama’s War Room And then Team Obama did the same thing by endorsing Specter with a “He can win” strategy and message. Threw principle out the window because they thought Specter had a better shot to beat the Republican nominee Pat Toomey.

But now it appears Specter may be upset in the primary by Rep. Joe Sestak. Oops. Good chance Specter will pay the price for making the race about his hopes rather than the voters'.

• The Arkansas primary is about the union label, but so is the general election.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln is in a dogfight for survival in her primary against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. The unions encouraged Halter’s candidacy, unhappy with Lincoln’s unwillingness to commit support for their prize—and highly controversial—legislative priority: Card Check, which would make organizing and recognizing a union vastly easier. Lincoln has run a very good incumbent campaign, making all the right moves and communicating all the right (moderate liberal) messages. In the end it may not matter because in the fall Arkansas is likely to vote against unions and for a Republican. But if anyone could survive in this environment, it would be the resilient and voter-focused Lincoln, who engineered a well-timed anti-Wall Street provision in the financial regulatory reform debate to help keep her afloat in the primary.

• The Establishment endorsement goes vampire: the kiss of death?

Kentucky will be the purest test for outsiders. The Tea Party smartly got behind ophthamologist Rand Paul, son of libertarian icon Rep. Ron Paul, against Secretary of State Trey Grayson to replace GOP Sen. Jim Bunning. Grayson has been heralding Establishment endorsements from the likes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while Paul has the imprimatur of Tea Party royalty Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint.

What is clear and consistent is that voters are mad and don’t trust anyone or anything anymore. If you’re running for office, it’s tough to be an incumbent. It’s tough to run out of Washington. It’s better to be an outsider. And Establishment support doesn’t help; it more likely hurts. The anointed candidates of the leader of the Democrats (Obama) and leader of the Republicans (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) are likely to lose.

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The bumper sticker for this year ought to be: Wanted: Candidates. No experience preferred.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.