Voters Oust Incumbents as Faith in Government Wanes
Policy + Politics

Voters Oust Incumbents as Faith in Government Wanes

Women win big as old-boy cronyism bites the dust

Another wave of anti-incumbent rage swept the ballot box this week as voters elected a string of anti-politicians, many in skirts, promising smaller, more accountable government. “There is a swirling rage out there against the status quo,” says Norm Ornstein, veteran political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “For a lot of people, there is a sense that government is careening out of control.”

The victors clearly tapped into that anti-establishment, anti-big government furor. Among the big story lines of the day:

  • Women came out on top shattering the political glass ceiling in California, Arkansas, South Carolina and Nevada, some with prominent help from Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a force to be reckoned with.
  • Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln’s surprise win in Arkansas provides a survival guide for centrists under assault from the left and the right.
  • The Tea Party roars on with an iconic win by 60-year-old activist Sharron Angle in Nevada where she will take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the fall.
  • The no-new-taxes pledge gathers steam with the come-from-behind victory of former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina for the GOP Senate nomination in California.
  • Old-boy cronyism bites the dust in South Carolina, where GOP gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Haley survives a smear campaign replete with charges of marital infidelity.
  • Big money isn’t everything. Pouring more than $70 million of her own money into the California gubernatorial race surely didn’t hurt former eBay CEO and GOP victor Meg Whitman. But Lincoln survived big labor’s big bucks in Arkansas. This year, it may be the message, stupid.

But will this anti-establishment revolt translate into a mandate that can actually downsize Washington? The answer is by no means clear. In fact, some pundits worry that it could, ironically, complicate an already devilish task. “There is overwhelming evidence that deficit reduction will require spending cuts and tax increases,” says Ornstein. “If the election takes one off the table, it could actually make things worse.”

Let’s read the tea leaves.

Arkansas: The Center Holds
Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln had been written off for dead by most political pros, after the two-term centrist Democrat became the target of a well-funded assault by organized labor, environmental groups and liberal activists. Among her apparent sins: voting against such litmus-test issues for the left as a “public option” in health care reform, and legislation that would have made it easier to unionize. But Arkansas is not a union state. And in the final days of the campaign, Lincoln was able to fight back by repositioning herself as a victim of big money lobbying by big labor and -- with her prominent support for stiff limits on derivatives -- a scourge of Wall Street. (A visit from Bill Clinton helped, too.) “My vote will not be bought!” she said triumphantly last night.

Of course, it’s not home free for Lincoln, who will still face a tough election against Republican Congressman John Boozman in the fall. But the lady from Arkansas with a penchant for centrist compromises and wide-brimmed bonnets did what other prominent moderates like retiring Indiana Senator Even Bayh Lincoln could not. She showed that even in the era of anti-incumbent rage, a centrist who’s in synch with her constituents can survive.

Nevada: Tea Party Power
In Nevada, Tea Party darling Sharron Angle beat two GOP incumbents — including former state party chairwoman Sue Lowden — to become the Republican challenger to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the fall. In Washington, Reid supporters are popping champagne corks, assuming that Angle’s radical ideas will make it easier for Reid to hold onto his seat, despite support that had dropped below 50 percent in a state hard hit by the recession and the implosion of home prices. Angle’s edgy anti-establishment views include support for privatizing Social Security, replacing the income tax with a flat tax, and eliminating the Energy Department. "I am the tea party," said the former Nevada lawmaker.

Were Angle to topple Reid, it would send a shock wave through Washington. But even if she loses, she gives voice to an alternate set of ideas that until recently have been limited to the wonky world of conservative think tanks – and backyard barbecues outside of the centers of power.

California: No New Taxes
In California, two well-financed lady CEOs emerged victorious: Whitman who will take on former California Governor Jerry Brown, a lifelong liberal who last held that office three decades ago before two-thirds of California voters were born, and Fiorina, who will take on three-term Senator Barbara Boxer, a leading advocate of the President’s agenda. Both Whitman and Fiorina are running against political status quo, promising a business-like downsizing of government – and no new taxes.

Says Whitman: "We do not have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem of epic proportions." Twenty-five percent of California's revenue comes from income taxes paid by the 144,000 richest taxpayers, so "if one of them leaves, it's a really bad thing." Instead of raising taxes, she promises to attack government bloat by eliminating some 40,000 state jobs and vetoing virtually all bills that do not advance her three priorities of creating jobs, slashing government and reforming public schools.

Cutting back the state work force with its costly pension obligations won’t be easy. But she may be onto something. A recent Rasmussen poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans now believe that government workers earn more than the average taxpayer, while 77 percent say they have more job security. If politicians can tap into that sense of unfairness, they may be able to begin paring back one of the biggest costs to state budgets – and reasons that even GOP governors like California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger are lining up at the federal trough for bailouts.

“In the past, you could get voters excited about rising inflation or taxes,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a leading advocate for the no-new-taxes pledge. “But that’s changed because people are so frightened by the Obama-Reid-Pelosi spending spree and the debt problems in Greece and Europe and here. For the first time in my lifetime, spending is a big voter issue.”

That may be why taking the no-new-tax pledge proved pivotal in the Fiorina race. The former HP exec was running behind popular former GOP Congressman Tom Campbell, a social liberal and economic conservative. But Fiorina pulled ahead in the home stretch, after running ads highlighting the fact that she had pledged not to raise taxes, while Campbell had refused. Norquist says more GOP candidates have made the pledge this year than ever before. Among them: former GOP House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich who is running for the Senate from Ohio.

Why would anyone who is serious about deficit reduction lock him or herself into such a one-sided solution? Says Norquist: “When I asked Kasich why, he said: ‘I am going to cut the budget.’”

We’ll see. With rigid positioning like we are seeing from GOP candidates, it won’t be easy to craft a balanced plan that can actually pass and be signed into law. But debating these big issues is what elections are all about. And this time, fiscal issues are taking center stage.

With additional reporting by Blaire Briody.

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