Baltimore Sun

Today's primary prediction: Expect overinterpretation

Voting had barely begun in a today's primaries when another incumbent went down and a favored contender had taken a potentially career-ending dive.

In the first case, Republican Rep. Mark Souder, a member of the fabled Class of 1994 that took back the House from the Democrats, fell victim to scandal.


Souder, who recently won renomination in a contested primary, announced that he was resigning his seat because he'd had an affair with a staff member. His heavily Republican northeast Indiana district figures to remain in Republican hands after this November's general election.

In the second instance, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, attorney general of Connecticut and a supposedly strong candidate to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, got body-slammed by a published report accusing him of inflating a Vietnam-era stint in the Marine Reserves to make it seem that he had actually served in Vietnam (he did not).


The hit job, which one of the Republican candidates--World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder Linda McMahon--claimed to have instigated, makes it much less likely that Democrats will hold the seat. However, it's entirely possible that an electable Democrat will emerge to challenge Blumenthal (assuming he remains a candidate) in the August primary.

Those are two significant political events on a day that already figured to be the most important election Tuesday so far this year.

Party-switching Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter looks particularly vulnerable in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak appears well-positioned to knock the 80-year-old incumbent from office.

Also in the Keystone State, a special election for the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, may well tip a long-held Democratic district to the Republicans.

In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln has her hands full with a primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who attacked her from the left. If she survives, she could be damaged beyond repair going into the fall election.

Kentucky will almost certainly be the scene of the biggest victory yet for tea-party adherents. Rand Paul, son of Texas Congressman (and failed presidential candidate) Ron Paul, is riding a wave a voter anger that should propel him into the 2010 general election, and possibly the Senate.

What to make of these developments? It depends on who turns out to vote, of course. But here is what you can almost certainly count on:Over-interpretation.

There's a good chance the results will be depicted as another sign that the 2010 mid-term elections are going to be (pick your cliche) an earthquake, a tsunami or a revolution.


If that's what people say, the importance of today's contests will almost certainly have been exaggerated. By both sides.

In other words, what happens is unlikely to be as earth-shattering as the winners claim, the losers fear or the talking heads on TV and print pundits confidently predict.

Take Pennsylvania, for example.

A Specter loss defeat would clearly be a final repudiation of an opportunistic politician with a mean streak (nickname: Snarlin' Arlen) in an angry, anti-incumbent year.

But it may not follow that Democrats will lose the Pennsylvania Senate seat. The Republican nominee, Pat Toomey, still must prove to independent swing voters that he's not the conservative ogre that Democrats will inevitably make him out to be.

In Kentucky's Republican primary, there's at least a smidgen of truth in the statement by Trey Grayson, the favored candidate of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and now the underdog in the primary vote, that if "Rand were Randy Smith, he wouldn't have the money or media connections of his dad" -- and wouldn't be expected to win. True, but he is who he is and, as the saying goes, politics (like life) is unfair.


Are incumbents in trouble this year? Absolutely. Will Republicans make gains in the House and the Senate. Count on it. Will the Republicans take over one or both chambers in Congress? At the moment, there is a good chance that will happen.

Will today's results also be interpreted as a stinging defeat for President Barack Obama, who campaigned for Specter and made a radio ad urging Arkansans for vote for Lincoln? Yes, they will, and you will also hear somebody predict that this is an early sign that Obama is on the way to losing his job in 2012.

Don't buy it (at least not yet). Presidents are frequently disappointed when they try to transfer their popularity to candidates in a mid-term year. More often than not, at least in recent history, those setbacks have little or nothing to do with the president's own re-election prospects.

Ronald Reagan couldn't stop Democrats from picking up more than two dozen House seats in the 1984 midterm and regaining control of the Senate in the midterm election of his second term. But Reagan won re-election by a landslide.

Bill Clinton had a similar experience. The 1994 Republican "revolution" shifted both the House and Senate from Democratic to Republican control, yet Clinton was re-elected two years later.

Even if--as seems obvious--2010 will produce turnover in Congress, American voters are still going to give the overwhelming majority of incumbents (perhaps around 90 percent) another term in the November election.


For Maryland, the 2010 upheaval is likely to produce exactly one change in Washington. Baltimore County state Sen. Andy Harris is favored to regain the First District for the Republicans, who held it for nearly 20 years until Democrat Frank Kratovil narrowly won in 2008.

The other eight federal incumbents on the Maryland ballot--six Democrats and one Republican in the House and Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski--aren't dealing with competitive challenges.

Nationally, this looks very much like a major mid-term election--the variety that only comes around once every decade or so.

But with the November vote less than six months off, it's unlikely to be the earthshaking upheaval some will claim to discern in today's events. Instead, the country is swinging back from the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, which, in hindsight, were given exaggerated importance at the time.