Maybe this fall won’t be as bad as Democrats fear — that was a key takeaway from Tuesday night’s primaries.
It was certainly an anti-Washington evening. Democratic incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter lost in Pennsylvania, Democratic incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a June 8 runoff in Arkansas, and Republican Tea Party favorite Rand Paul defeated the candidate that had been handpicked by the GOP establishment to fill a Senate seat in Kentucky.
But the real question Tuesday was, how much did the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District — won by Democrat Mark Critz 53 to 45 percent — augur for this fall?
National Democrats, who have endured a string of bad news in recent elections, could barely contain themselves at the result in PA-12, shouting from the rooftops that Republicans had lost the only election that mattered Tuesday.
“Republicans Crushed in the Most Important Race of the Night,” read the subject line of an e-mail from the Democratic National Committee.
The DNC said the race to fill deceased Democrat Jack Murtha’s seat was “not only a must-win for Republicans, but it was a seat that GOP officials both nationally and in the state EXPECTED to win.”
DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse, in a separate e-mail, said “this GOP loss — in this environment — raises REAL questions about the Republican Party’s ability to take back in the House in November.”
DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan forwarded around on Twitter a comment by liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas: “Knock on wood, but it’s looking like an awesome night for Dems.”
Others cautioned that the results in the district held by Murtha for 36 years were the result of still-strong local union organizing and of the statewide Democratic primary held the same day, which ensured that Critz — a long time Murtha aide — got the biggest boost possible out of a district that is registered Democrat by a two-to-one margin over Republicans.
Nonetheless, Republicans were clearly discouraged at the setback, which will raise fresh questions about their ability to raise money and organize in such a way as to take advantage of the national trends, which are blowing strongly against established Washington candidates.
Top Republican operatives had said a little over a week away from the PA-12 special election that if Republican Tim Burns won, it would mean they were headed for gains of possibly 50 seats.
“Tonight’s result was undoubtedly disappointing, but we will take the lessons learned from this campaign and move forward in preparation for November,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Sessions said the PA-12 race — where Critz said he opposed President Obama’s health law and campaigned as a “pro-life, pro-gun Democrat — had been an “early preview” of Democratic strategies this fall.
“They will steer clear of publicly campaigning with President Obama and Speaker Pelosi, distance themselves from the Democratic agenda, and attempt to co-opt Republican positions on the issues,” Sessions said.
In calls to small business owners in the district on Monday, several mentioned they knew nothing of Burns except what they had heard in negative TV ads. One hardware store owner even said Burns would institute a 23 percent sales tax hike, which was based on an ad by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that was false.
Sessions himself is sure to come under fire for having lost a string of special elections.
Yet as much as Democrats tried to paint PA-12 as a sign that their fortunes might be headed up, the sense of anger at incumbents that came through in the three Senate races was inescapable. Tuesday’s results may end up as a sign that Democrats won’t be the only ones to get punished by voters this fall.
And though the GOP’s quest to reach 40 House seats grew a little more difficult, their aim to take back the Senate actually became more possible Tuesday with the scandal surrounding Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal.