Politics
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (L) hold a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Nov. 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (L) hold a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Nov. 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron)  

Lamar! Win Not Reassuring!

In a piece that came out election night, but reads as if it had been written two weeks earlier after a lunch with Lamar Alexander’s pollster, WaPo‘s Sean Sullivan and Robert Costa write:

“The Tennessee Republican easily won his primary Tuesday against a conservative insurgent who sought to bury him over his vote [for amnesty 'comprehensive immigration reform'] …

His survival is a testament to an emerging political reality: Republicans who support reform can survive the conservative backlash. It was also another demonstration of how much immigration has been overshadowed on the trail by other issues — in Tennessee, by health care and the economy. …

The success of Alexander [and 'comprehensive' backers] Graham, Collins and Ellmers could be just the evidence pro-reform Republicans have been desperately searching for to coax House leaders into action.”

On her Friday show, Laura Ingraham rightly held up this piece for ridicule. What’s wrong with it?

1. Alexander didn’t “easily” win. He’s a long established incumbent yet he got less than 50% of the vote and beat his closest challenger in seven-candidate field by only 9 points. Paul Kane, Sullivan and Costa’s WaPo colleague — who seems to have written his piece after the votes came in — characterized the win as  ”closer-than-expected,” and notes that “[i]t appears that almost every late-breaking voter went to [one of Lamar!s opponents].” Kane concludes: “Given the closer-than-expected results, Alexander needed to spend every dollar and trek every mile across the state, or else he might have lost.”

2. Alexander’s campaign doesn’t demonstrates that opposition to the “Gang of 8″ immigration was not a big issue. Alexander seemed to treat it as a big issue, running television ads deceptively implying he’d voted against the bill. (Ads for other “comprehensive” supporters have done the same thing.) Note that nobody argues that a vote for the bill was a net plus, which seemingly contradicts the idea that “comprehensive reform” is wildly popular. The argument is whether a vote for it is a survivable minus.

3. Is immigration being “overshadowed” by other issues? Not according to Alexander himself, who concedes, “The border crisis lit a fire under it” for the last two or three weeks of the campaign (when, if you believe his publicized internal polls, he dropped a knee-weakening 23 points).  And not according to WaPo‘s own pre-midterm thumbsucker, which cites polling data from Gallup showing immigration has at least temporarily become the voter’s #1 concern.

4. You don’t need to beat a pol to scare a pol. Earlier this year, as David Weigel noted, supporters of amnesty comprehensive reform were hoping pro-”comprehensive”  Rep. Ellmers would decisively beat her little-known underfunded challenger, Frank Roche. But Roche got 41% — enough to scare most incumbents. Then Eric Cantor’s opponent got 55% and actually beat him. There were several factors in Cantor’s loss ( a non-trivial minority in his district always disliked him), but his squishiness on amnesty was a big one.  Alexander’s main opponent, Joe Carr, essentially replicated Roche’s 40% feat, except in a statewide race with a multi-candidate field — harder to do.

No actual politician with his or her career on the line is going to be reassured by Sullivan and Costa’s argument that, ‘Hey, sure supporting amnesty might cost you 23 points in the polls but with the right combination of preexisting popularity, money, and deception you might be  able to squeak out a 49% victory!” They will think, ‘I don’t want to give up 23 points.” Politicians worry about giving up 2 points.

5. That’s especially true for Congressmen. Sullivan and Roche note that Cantor was defeated “in the smaller and more volatile universe of a congressional district, not a statewide campaign.” Then they note that fear of a primary loss is “one of the biggest factors fueling House Republicans’ hesitation to take up immigration reform.” Hello? Editor! Last time I checked approximately 100% of House races actually occur in the “smaller and more volatile universe of a congressional district.” Why should House Republicans be reassured when a senator wins (barely) in a bigger, less volatile universe?

P.S.: I do disagree with Ingraham’s criticism of fellow conservatives who didn’t jump in to wholeheartedly back Carr, because (she says) they “worried about the Beltway scorecards” and whether “their brand might be diminished if they back someone who ultimately doesn’t win.”  There were other less selfish reasons to not jump in, in particular the worry that immigration reform itself might be revived, by more convincing pieces on the order of Sullivan’s and Costa’s, if anti-amnesty forces had made a huge effort to back Carr and then lost. That’s a strategic risk (if all you care about is blocking amnesty) akin to throwing a pass when you’re ahead and the clock is running down. We already beat Cantor. We didn’t need to beat anyone else to make the point. In the event, Carr didn’t get a lot of backing and still made it uncomfortably close, which also makes the point.