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Hold that celebration, Republicans

Analysis: You Republicans ready to start celebrating major gains — maybe even looking ahead to winning control of Congress this fall? You might want to let voters have a say first.
Image: Rand Paul, Ron Paul, Kelley Paul, Carol Paul, William Paul
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul, bottom left, is accompanied by his wife Kelley, his father and mother Ron and Carol, and his son William as he arrives for his victory party in Bowling Green, Ky., Tuesday, May 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)Ed Reinke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Note to incumbents: That experience thing? Stop bragging about it.

And you Republicans ready to start celebrating major gains — maybe even looking ahead to winning control of Congress this fall. You might want to let voters have a say first.

It's difficult to draw conclusions for November from the early round of primaries and a single partisan election in a campaign season that has produced consistently confounding results. But those two seem safe, at least for now.

Facing career-ending defeat a few weeks apart, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania both invoked their experience.

"With Jack Murtha gone, I'm the only guy left standing with seniority and experience," Specter told a small group of supporters inside an airplane hangar on Tuesday, recalling the late lawmaker, famous for sending millions in federal funds back to his southwestern Pennsylvania district.

A few hours later, Specter was a loser for the first time in 30 years, a five-term incumbent and recent party switcher who fell to a younger, less experienced rival who said the veteran senator was an opportunist whose time had "come and gone." It was hardly a surprising outcome when Rep. Joe Sestak, the winner, cast it in those terms.

But it was a defeat made all the more remarkable because of the extraordinary political survival skills Specter had shown for decades as a moderate in a Republican Party growing steadily more conservative in a classic swing state.

Bennett pulled out the same trump card earlier this month in conservative Utah. "Don't take a chance on a newcomer. There's too much at stake," he said to GOP convention delegates, tea party activists among them.

Now the incumbent muses about running as a write-in, denied a spot on the primary ballot by some of the same delegates who cheered him six years earlier. In the end, he was bounced for voting to bail out Wall Street in 2008, for trying to work across party lines on health care and more.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a favorite of the delegates, outlined a far different approach. The Republican Party, he said, "isn't the party of no. It's the party of hell, no."

Lesson two isn't about primaries at all.

It's a caution to Republicans eagerly looking ahead to major gains this fall, possibly even a huge wave that sweeps them into power in one or both houses of Congress.

Case in point was Democrat Mark Critz' victory Tuesday over Republican Tim Burns in a race to fill out the final few months of Murtha's term. Both parties plunked down $1 million or more to sway the outcome in the district, home to more Democrats than Republicans.

And GOP officials did nothing to discourage the chatter when pundits pronounced it a race the GOP couldn't afford to lose.

Except they did, and convincingly, 53 percent to 45 percent, in a district where Republican presidential candidate John McCain won in 2008, where President Barack Obama's approval ratings are in the 35 percent range and where the administration's energy policy may seem threatening to any of the thousands employed in the region's coal industry.

Some Republicans read the returns and came to a curious conclusion.

"This race should serve notice to Democratic officeholders everywhere that no seat is safe and that voters will not accept business-as-usual," said Michael Steele, the Republican national chairman.

Others took a more analytical approach.

In an internal debate likely just now beginning, some Republicans hypothesize a deficit in their party's ability to master the nuts and bolts of campaigns. If correct, this theory would make them more vulnerable than they should otherwise be to Democrats in an era of economic insecurity and a general public desire for change.

A different explanation holds that the Senate primary between Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak swelled Democratic turnout beyond expectations and swept Critz to victory.

Yet a third argues that Democrats successfully stressed the importance of creating jobs at home, as opposed to overseas, while the GOP ran against Critz as a liberal who would vote for the agenda advanced by Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But the senatorial primary had been the focus of attention for months, and the mystery is why the National Republican Congressional Committee decide to spend $1 million in television ads and other political activity — 10 percent of the cash it had on hand at the end of March and welcome the chatter about the race being a bellwether.

And Critz said he would not have voted for the health care legislation that Obama won from Congress, although he also said he wouldn't vote to repeal it, as Burns wanted to do. And he wanted nothing to do with the so-called "cap and trade" energy bill that the House cleared last year.

That's not likely to be much help for dozens of incumbent Democrats who will be on the ballot this fall, and possibly under attack from Republicans for voting for one or the other.

But it could provide a roadmap for Democrats in districts where Obama isn't too popular, and the health care law isn't either.

In other words, the type of race that will settle the overall battle for control of the House.