Voters always have the last word, and in the course of most elections they grab reporters by the sleeve and teach us a few lessons.
So far, at nearly the end of the primary season, voters have taught us that it is not — at least not yet — a year of broad and passionate anti-incumbent sentiment.
Most choices facing voters on Nov. 7 will be defined as Republican versus Democrat, not as incumbent versus anti-incumbent.
While Washington may be a dysfunctional, non-productive place and while Congress may have failed to solve the problem — just to cite one — of making Medicare fiscally viable for the decades ahead, voters have so far passed up the opportunity to reject anyone who has had anything to do with “the mess in Washington.”
In the Rhode Island Republican primary, Steve Laffey was seeking to unseat liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a patrician charter member of the Establishment and the son of former Sen. John Chafee.
Laffey portrayed himself as a populist who would defy special interests. He railed against the big drug companies and their relentless TV advertising, against the sugar lobby and its pals in Congress, and against the teachers unions, whom he blamed for blocking private school vouchers.
It was an odd, intriguing mix for a Republican candidate, one who more and more toward the end of the campaign painted himself as non-party, anti-establishment hell-raiser.
“Washington is a mess and it’s heading in the wrong direction,” Laffey said. “Neither the national Democrats nor the national Republicans want to see me down there.”
But it turned out independent and Republican voters didn’t want to see Laffey down there either.
Independents could vote in Tuesday’s Rhode Island primary and they helped Chafee defeat Laffey.
The legacy vote
Another lesson of Tuesday’s results is that name brands still count in some places. The Chafee name — the residual respect older voters have for John Chafee — still is worth thousands of votes to his son.
Likewise with other political dynasties, famous and not-so-famous across the nation: the Walsh franchise in Syracuse, N.Y.; the Casey “brand” in Pennsylvania, and even the Cuomo name in New York, where Andrew Cuomo, son of the former governor, won the democratic nomination Tuesday as state attorney general (a possible stepping stone to running for governor or senator some day).
Yes, a few incumbents have suffered defeats: Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski failed to win re-nomination as GOP candidate for governor last month and, more famously, Ned Lamont defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman for the Democratic Senate nomination in Connecticut last month.
But this year voters have rejected only two House incumbents by denying them their party’s nomination.
In Georgia, Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney was defeated by her eccentric behavior and by a strong push by pro-Israel donors angered by her support of Arab causes.
In Michigan, social conservative Tim Walberg defeated John McCain ally and centrist Republican Rep. Joe Schwarz, another episode in the conservative-centrist battle that has a long roiled Michigan Republicans.
But almost all House and Senate incumbents have won re-nomination, with minimal exertion.
The anti-war element
Democratic primary challengers running on a platform of lambasting Democratic incumbents for support the Iraq war have had only limited success.
Case in point: here in Rhode Island last night, Brown University professor Jennifer Lawless lost to three-term incumbent Rep. Jim Langevin.
He voted against the Iraq use-of-force resolution in 2002, but since then has voted for funding the war and that is what drew Lawless’s ire.
Her TV ads alleged that Langevin “refuses to hold George Bush accountable for his war in Iraq.”
Lawless even created a website: LangevinequalsLieberman.com to try to equate her rival with the defeated Democratic senator in Connecticut.
But in the end voters’ respect for Langevin prevailed: Lawless won 38 percent of the vote to Langevin’s 62 percent.
The war issue came much closer to defeating a Democratic incumbent in Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District, where Rep. Albert Wynn very nearly lost his party’s nomination to anti-Iraq war challenger Donna Edwards.
Not all the votes have yet been counted and Edwards has not conceded defeat in that race.
The race paralleled the Lawless-Langevin contest (although Wynn had voted for the war resolution in 2002 and Langevin had voted against it).
In her radio ads, Edwards said (through a male voice-over), “Some Democrats like Albert Wynn sold us out. Albert Wynn backed Bush’s war.”
Langevin and Wynn outspent their challengers by ratios of better than two to one.
And Lamont proved that if you’re a challenger going up against a famous incumbent it makes all the difference if you happen to be a millionaire; in fact, despite Lamont voicing support for the concept of public (taxpayer) financing of elections, the reality is, as of the July 17 Federal Election Commission report, nearly 70 percent of the money the Lamont campaign spent came from Lamont’s own fortune.
Another lesson that may have gotten lost Tuesday night in the focus on Chafee: Voters don’t like party leaders dictating to them, especially in states such as New Hampshire where grass-roots activists have vast experience in running campaigns.
In the primary to decide which Democrat would oppose incumbent Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley, voters rejected the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Jim Craig, the state House minority leader.
When I saw him in June at the state party convention Manchester, N.H., Craig seemed decidedly weak in his speech-making and policy-articulation skills, so his defeat may in fact have given Democrats a better chance to defeat Bradley than they’d have had if he won.
Instead Democratic voters chose Carol Shea-Porter, who ran an aggressive and intelligently focused grass-roots effort.
Speaking on behalf of the DCCC, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said back in June that Craig got the party leaders’ blessing because “we feel like he has the best chance for success and we're not taking any chances leaving it 'til Sept. 12 to know who our nominee is.”
In effect, New Hampshire Democrats said to Wasserman-Schultz what Tonto might have said, “Whose ‘we’?”
Primaries matter -- and sometimes voters insist on letting party leaders and reporters know that.