Political roundup: The aftermath of Tuesday’s House and Senate races

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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This Tuesday, like most Tuesdays in an election year, saw a host of primaries. This week, TheDC’s political roundup gives you a look at a few of the more interesting ones: The special election to fill Rep. Gabby Giffords’ former seat, the Maine Senate race, and the Virginia Republican Senate primary.

1) Arizona special election

Democrats managed to hold onto the seat formerly occupied by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a special election on Tuesday, with Giffords’ former Chief of Staff Ron Barber beating out Republican Jesse Kelly.

Barber beat Kelly 52 to 46 percent — a larger margin than expected. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm that polled for Barber, noted in their congratulatory press release that this was an improved showing for Democrats in this seat than in 2010, when Giffords beat Kelly by a mere two percentage points, 49-47.

Democrats said this was a victory for Democratic ideology.

“Ron Barber’s strong campaign made this a referendum on the Republican plans to drastically cut Medicare and privatize Social Security, while giving massive tax breaks to millionaires, Big Oil and corporations that ship jobs overseas,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman (DCCC) Steve Israel said. “The Republican plan lost.”

The DCCC called it a “preview of the 2012 message battle between Democrats and Republicans,” in a memo on what the race means for November, and said that it showed Democrats to be strongly positioned heading into the general election.

Republicans, on the other hand, downplayed the significance, saying it had more to do with the memory of Giffords than either of the two candidates running.

“The race went largely according to form and the outcome was unremarkable,” said Jay Heiler, an Arizona Republican political consultant. “There is no favorable portent for Democrats in the result, except for the obvious reality that Gabby Giffords is justly admired and her support in this cycle means something to many voters.”

The National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) had a similar take, portraying it as a wash and choosing to focus on the other primaries on Tuesday.

“What we know after last night: Democrats still hold Arizona 8, and Nancy Pelosi is no closer to the speaker’s chair than she was before the special election,” said Paul Lindsay, NRCC communications director, in a statement.

What it means for November remains to be seen.

Barber will likely hold the seat through 2014 because in November, candidates will be running for a newly apportioned district that looks more favorable for Democrats. That sets things up for a potential rematch, as Kelly has said he intends to run again in November. But Arizona Republicans may not be willing to make him the nominee again, cautioned Barry Aarons.

“Jesse Kelly failed twice in a better district, so the party faithful might be less inclined to want him to try again, especially in a less friendly district,” Aarons emailed. “Martha McSally finished a surprisingly strong second in the Republican primary in April. So surprising that the former fighter pilot — she was the first woman to actually fly fighter missions —might very well be considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination.”

2) Maine Senate primary and its aftermath

On Tuesday, the field of candidates running to replace retiring Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe was whittled down to four. Democratic State Sen. Cynthia Dill and Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers will share the ballot with two independent candidates: Former Gov. Angus King and Steve Woods, a businessman and chairman of the Yarmouth Town Council.

King is the undisputed frontrunner — a wildly popular former governor. But King has refused to say which party he would caucus with in the Senate. It is generally assumed that he will caucus with Democrats: He supported, and continues to support, President Barack Obama. In 2000, he supported President George W. Bush; in 2004, he endorsed John Kerry.

King’s presence puts Democrats in a potentially uncomfortable position, said Nathan Gonzalez of the Rothenberg Political Report. Dill is considered something of a B-list candidate; the stronger Democratic candidates opted not to run when King announced that he was running.

Dill has yet to disprove this characterization. Her last Federal Election Commission report from the end of May showed that she had raised just over $38,000 and had only $9,219 cash on hand. King, by contrast, had raised over $468,795 and had $260,344 cash on hand. As a result, there is little pressure on national Democrats to support her, as she seems to have little chance of winning.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not indicated any plans to get involved in the race. Reached for comment, spokesman Matt Canter said merely, “Although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already seemed to wipe his hands with Maine, we continue to work with people in Maine to assess the race.”

But Dill is “feisty,” said Gonzalez, and unlikely to go down without a fight. If she begins to gain traction, Gonzalez warned, Democrats could be put in the position of having to quietly campaign against her, to avoid a split vote between her and King. If they divide the vote, Summers could have an opening to squeak into office by winning a plurality.

Summers was not exactly voted in with a groundswell of support. Just 27 percent of Maine Republicans turned out to vote in the primary, and just 29 percent of them voted for Summers in the six-way primary. According to the Bangor Daily News, he, like Dill, won the nomination by virtue of high name identification (he has run in Maine elections before).

Another corkscrew in this race is the presence of Woods, the second independent candidate on the ballot. In a press release Wednesday, Woods announced that he would not play the “spoiler” in November if it became clear that he had no chance of winning. He promised to pull out of the race a week before the election if public, non-partisan polling found him losing to King by 10 or more points. He asked King to make the same promise, should the polls find things to be the other way around. He made the endorsement in advance, however, calling King “smart, honest, moral, articulate, charismatic, funny, warm, thoughtful and more politically astute than Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan combined.”

He explained in the press release that he was making the endorsement now because he did not feel that endorsements that came after long bitter campaigns and vicious attack on the opponent, like Newt Gingrich’s endorsement of Mitt Romney, could really be perceived as sincere.

3) Virginia Senate primary sets the stage

Former Virginia Governor and Senator George Allen handily swept the Republican primary on Tuesday, setting up a highly contested and carefully watched election against former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine.

The results were expected, but the race followed a somewhat different trajectory from other races we’ve seen this cycle. In Indiana, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock rode a wave of anti-incumbent and anti-Washington insider sentiment to handily defeat longtime Indiana Senator Dick Lugar. A similar sentiment appears to be shaping up in the Wisconsin Senate primary, where the initial front-runner, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, is being cast as a Washington insider, and is losing ground to former Rep. Mark Neumann, a conservative candidate with tea party support.

But Allen, whose record seems to cast him as a Washington insider, went all but unchallenged by his most prominent tea party opponent, Jamie Radtke. Radtke failed to gain much traction at all, losing to Allen by over 40 points.

In part, said Geoff Skelley, a political analyst at University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, this is because the two other candidates running in the Republican primary were also tea party candidates, making it more difficult for Radtke to unite conservatives who were displeased with Allen.

But the big part is that Virginia Republicans don’t view Allen as a Washington insider.

Radtke tried to cast Allen that way when she first announced, said David Shephard, who writes the politics blog The Virginia Gentleman, but it “didn’t ring true,” even “with most tea party activists.”

Shephard endorsed Allen in the primary.

“George has always had an anti-establishment air about him,” echoed Michael Meredith, a longtime Republican activist in Virginia. “It’s kind of his genre. He’s always run against the crowd. And a lot of people remember him for that … he’s not a team player for the establishment, never has been. Don’t think he ever will be.”

“Allen cast some bad votes, but the tea party didn’t really see him as part of the problem, so it just didn’t sell,” Shephard said.

“Allen has done a good job of remaining popular among most of the conservatives in the state of Virginia,” said Skelley. “He was a very, very popular governor … and Allen was considered this great reformer when he was governor.”

“There’s a certain connection, a certain level that people still have for him despite a few bad votes,” said Shephard. “And Radtke just wasn’t able to turn him into the villain.”

His time spent in the Senate, Skelley added, did not come close to approaching Lugar’s 35 years in office.

Though Allen made what Republicans call “bad votes” during his time in Senate, “a lot of still remember what a great governor he was, and because of that, there’s sort of an amnesia on the Senate record,” Shephard said.

The general election between Kaine and Allen will be closely watched, in part due to Kaine’s close ties with Obama. Moreover, who wins the Senate race is closely tied to which presidential candidate picks up Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.

“If Romney carries Virginia, Allen wins. If Obama carries Virginia, Kaine wins,” Shephard said. “It really is totally driven by the top of the ticket – you’re not gonna have many ticket splitters.”

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