Budget and economic issues were an important subtext to Tuesday’s congressional primaries, as Tea Party forces scored a high profile victory in Kentucky’s Senate race with promises of spending austerity and the prolonged recession played a factor in a closely-watched Pennsylvania House special election.
Political analysts generally agreed that a strong anti-incumbency, anti-establishment theme permeated many of the primary contests in four states. Sen. Arlen Specter, a veteran lawmaker who switched parties from Republican to Democrat a year ago was toppled by Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary, and embattled Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a June 8 runoff by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the Arkansas Democratic contest.
But fiscal and economic issues were important factors in other races, and influenced voters in a variety of ways. Thomas Mann, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution, noted that many working-class voters are “scared by what happened in the economy” and are highly skeptical that the government’s response to the financial crisis and soaring unemployment did much more than add to the budget deficit.
“By substantial margins, they have come to view the government’s efforts to mitigate the danger of the economic downturn and meltdown of no utility – and that we have to do something about those big problems of spending and debt,” Mann said. “But what you’ve got is politicians for the most part presenting widely unrealistic scenarios or proposals . . . and the public responding to those.”
In Kentucky, ophthalmologist Rand Paul, a political novice and son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., used his Tea Party backing to defeat Secretary of State Trey Grayson to capture the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat, despite Grayson’s strong backing from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and much of the Bluegrass State’s political establishment.
“I don’t think there is any question that the most important issue in the Senate primary here in Kentucky on the Republican side was spending and American fiscal policy,” said Scott Jennings, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and now a senior strategist at Peritus, a Kentucky-based public affairs firm. “It was the issue that propelled Rand Paul to victory and the issue Trey Grayson never seemed to gain any traction on during the campaign. People think the deficit is threatening their future and their children’s future and they are looking for candidates who are as angry about it as they are.”
Paul emerged as a rallying point for conservative and independent dissatisfaction with White House and congressional handling of the budget and the massive, $1.4 trillion deficit. He pledged to help balance the budget, by eliminating congressional earmarks and dramatically reducing federal spending.
“The Tea Party movement is about saving the country from a mountain of debt that is devouring our country and that I think could lead to chaos,” Paul said during his victory speech Tuesday night. He later told CBS News that “Neither party has controlled the debt very well and neither party has controlled spending . . . So I think the Tea Party is about bringing government back to its senses.” Paul will face Jack Conway, the Democratic state attorney general who captured his party’s nomination, in the November election.
Arkansas and Pennsylvania
Economic concerns were front and center in another closely watched race in southwestern Pennsylvania, in which Democrat Mark Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns in a special election to fill the remaining months of the late Rep. John Murtha’s term. Murtha, a crusty former Marine, was the second ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and brought hundreds of millions of federal dollars and defense contracts to his region.
Republicans had hoped to pick off this culturally conservative district that backed Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, as a further sign of their gathering political momentum. But Critz, a moderate and former aide to Murtha, easily defeated Republican businessman Tim Burns – in part by promising continuity in steering federal aid to the economically distressed 12th congressional district. Critz defended Murtha’s legendary earmarking prowess.
The Arkansas and Pennsylvania Senate races were more politically complicated. Lincoln was sharply criticized by labor unions and progressives for giving up on the public option in the health-care debate -- a position that put her in league with President Obama and perhaps many of her constituents but one that rankled the base of the Democratic Party. Lincoln frequently had to straddle spending and fiscal issues to placate conflicting ideological forces in her state, at times demanding fiscal discipline to satisfy conservative Blue Dog Democrats and at other times pressing for big increases in spending on emergency agriculture assistance to satisfy the state’s powerful rural interests.
As chairwoman of the agriculture committee from a state where agriculture generates 25 percent of the economy, Lincoln was under pressure to deliver for Arkansas producers. She also ran afoul of banking and financial interests by recently proposing to bar banks from engaging in the marketing or use of financial derivatives as part of a major overhaul of financial regulations.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Specter sought to use his seniority and proven 30-year record of delivering federal largess to his state to offset Sestak’s devastating portrayal of him in campaign ads as a political opportunist who switched parties purely to retain power. The 80-year-old Specter had the support of President Obama and the political leadership of his state, but many rank-and file Democrats found it hard to accept that he had been a Republican since the 1960s.
Sestak, a two-term House member with strong liberal backing, blasted Specter as a Washington insider lacking “core convictions,” but he rarely challenged Specter on spending policy or his blatant promises to continue delivering political pork to the state. That might be because Sestak voted for virtually every major spending bill proposed by the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership. He has defended those votes by noting that he has also backed so-called “pay-as-you-go” rules requiring that new spending or tax cuts be offset by equivalent amounts. Sestak will face Republican Patrick Toomey, a former House member, in the fall election.