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May 19, 2010

Three More Takes on Yesterday's Vote

Jim Geraghty's point here is good -- even as I was making the "Critz-ran-as-a-conservative" spin-argument, I realized its infirmity.

Because the problem is that is how most Democrats in these sorts of districts always run. The question was not whether a Democrat from this sort of district would pose, yet again, as a conservative, while actually planning to vote for just about everything Nancy Pelosi wants -- that was guaranteed beforehand -- but whether or not this age-old trick would still work.

Alas, yes, it still does work.

Some conservatives bitterly chuckled that Democrats were celebrating the victory of a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who opposed health care and cap-and-trade. (Public Policy Polling found only 30 percent of the district’s voters support Obamacare, and 58 percent oppose.) This comes on the heels of an anti-Obamacare, anti-Pelosi, pro-life Democrat, Mike Oliverio, knocking off incumbent Alan Mollohan in West Virginia. They contend that few Democrats will be able to run on as conservative a platform as Critz and Oliverio did.

That argument is true enough, but a lot of Democrats who are considered vulnerable will be attempting to run as conservatives this fall. In fact, what made Pennsylvania’s special House election a useful indicator was that the two candidates offered precisely the arguments we should see in many swing districts this fall: the Republican arguing that the Democrat was a puppet for President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, and the Democrat insisting that no, he had nothing to do with those Washington liberals, that he was just a homespun country boy who voted in his district’s best interest. Tuesday, a district full of conservative Democrats concluded that Critz made the more persuasive argument.

A more persuasive argument? Or assumed a more agreeably-hypocritical posture?

Yes, people tend to do that all too frequently, buy into transparent nonsense, which often makes me wonder if people simply enjoy being lied to. That is: It's very possible people prefer hypocrites because fundamentally they are hypocrites themselves; they want politicians like themselves, people who mouth platitudes about responsibility and accountability and our children's future while voting to bankrupt those children.

Geraghty's next point is good, too:

For political junkies, a campaign on national themes is the natural and obvious choice. But no one ever asked the voters of either this Pennsylvania or that New York district whether they wanted their local House race to be a proxy war between two national parties. Up in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, there were plenty of voters who care about widening the St. Lawrence Seaway, redevelopment around Plattsburgh Air Force Base, highway plans between Watertown and Plattsburgh; topics that don’t get asked about on appearances on the Sean Hannity show or CNN. Hoffman’s botching of an interview with the Watertown Daily Times editorial board was much more harmful than it seemed at the time; no conservative should emulate Dick Armey in his dismissal of “regional concerns as ‘parochial’ issues that would not determine the outcome of the election.”

Tim Burns never quite emulated those comments, but he did repeatedly declare his candidacy a referendum on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration. Considering how badly the pair poll in the district, that simply wasn’t the case. Conservatives chuckle at Democrats who constantly invoke George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and note that neither of those figures will be on the ballot this November. Well, Obama and Nancy Pelosi weren’t on the ballot Tuesday, either.

Hmmm... not sure how to handle that, then: I guess maybe conservative candidates have to run almost entirely as local politicians, and not try to nationalize the race too much by their own words or own ads, and maybe just trust that, even while not mentioning Pelosi, the general mood of the electorate will show itself. Maybe it's a don't-force-it-let-it-simply-come sort of deal.

There's a problem with that, though: "Local issues" is often synonymous with "directing federal money into the district" or "pressing for special federal favors," and that is far more congruent with the Democratic agenda with the Republican one.

Conservatives 4 Palin thinks we couldn't have won this heavily-Democratic race except in a low-turnout election, where our party's enthusiasm could edge down the gap in actual turnout; but Ed Rendell craftily scheduled this vote to occur on the day of the Pennsylvania Senate Primary, denying us that low turnout:

I had been worrying about this since Rendell made that announcement and as I watched the election returns online last night, my concerns were confirmed. It became clear very early that there was no way Tim Burns could win a special election run concurrently with a primary election for the same race. This was evident to me despite the point made by Rick Santorum and others early in the evening that the initial numbers were coming from Democrat strongholds and Burns could come back to win when the more conservative precincts were counted. This wishful thinking was unrealistic. There was never going to be sufficient Republican votes to overcome the 2-1 Democrat to Republican advantage in the district given that voters had to declare their party affiliation to vote in the primary on the same night.

The data I paid particular attention to in the PA-12 race were the results coming in from the primary election. From the very beginning, the number of votes being cast in the Democrat Primary for the 2012 general election in PA-12 was nearly twice the amount being cast in the Republican Primary. You would expect this since, as Santorum noted, mainly Democrat precincts were being counted. But as numbers began coming in from more conservative areas, the trend continued. Indeed when all the votes were tallied, 80, 736 were cast in the Democrat primary and only 45, 852 in the GOP Primary.

We had a relatively uncontested primary (Toomey won in a walk, as expected) and they had a hotly-contested one; that assured PA-12 Democrats would be out in force.

This may be true as well, but in many of the districts we hope to pick off in November, we can't count on a low-turnout election, either: Midterms aren't as big as presidential elections, but they're hardly small-potatoes elections, either.

Nate Silver covers all of the votes yesterday, including PA-12, of course:

The results: Mark Critz (D) defeats Tim Burns (R), 53-45.

The conventional wisdom: A big, clutch win for Democrats.

The reality: Neither outcome would have been surprising here. The polling showed a toss-up, and the district (with a PVI of R+1) is close to the national median. There's a lot of variance in open-seat elections for the House; even in an environment like 2008, Democrats would have had about a 30 percent chance of losing this seat, and even in one as relatively poor for them as 2004, they would have had about a 40 percent chance of winning it.

Still, the 8-point margin of victory was surprising. As I wrote yesterday morning: "It's really only if one of the candidates wins by middle-to-high single digits ... that [PA-12] might tell us something", and Critz met that threshold.

Republicans have some decent excuses; they may have been harmed by the fact that there was a contentious Democratic Senate primary occurring at the same time, for instance, and the DCCC seems to have a peculiar knack for winning special elections. The Democratic candidate ran against his party's health care bill! But make no mistake: there are garbage cans being kicked, and consultants being sworn at, at NRCC headquarters right now. And the Republicans may need to engage in some self-reflection about whether nationalizing the race will be the optimal strategy in each of 50 distinct states and 435 distinct Congressional Districts.

I think that this race was in fact "meaningful," as Silver says, not particularly that Critz won in a heavily Democratic that has been electing a Democrat for 36 years straight, but that he did so without much of a scare.

That does seem to suggest that our previous optimism was ill-founded: Yes, we may still win the House, but it will be, as it was once thought, a hard thing to do, and that talk of a full-on Democratic wipe-out was silly.

Butterball Pudgebunny Chris Matthews said it would have been "catastrophic" if Critz had lost, considering the built-in Democratic advantage there. And I guess we could extrapolate from PA-12 (assuming it wasn't an aberration) that November won't be catastrophic for Democrats. But "not catastrophic" is not the same as "good" or even "fair."

The Democrats, I think, will still do very poorly in November. I'm moving away from my giddy catastrophe stuff, but we don't actually need a Democratic catastrophe to win -- just winning what it looks like we could and should win should do the trick.

It will still feel like a catastrophe to the Democrats, of course.



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posted by Ace at 04:01 PM

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