Two strong winds are blowing through the U.S. political world, as events of the past week have made quite clear. The first is an anti-Democratic-incumbent wind, which can be felt in this year's primaries and which claimed 14-term Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., on Tuesday; a ton of polling data reveals the power of this trend. The second is a strongly populist, anti-Washington, anti-Wall Street, and anti-incumbent wind. That's the force that produced three-term Sen. Robert Bennett's loss at the Republican state convention in Utah.
In the past, seniority and power were almost a guarantee of re-election. Now, having power and influence is a strike against incumbents. The way voters seem to view incumbents this year is that if you have real power and things are in bad shape, you are an even bigger part of the problem than you would be if you were a backbencher.
Democratic incumbents, new or old, junior or senior, who will be facing both of these winds in November should be worried. Long-serving Democratic members of Congress identified as having "gone Washington" are especially under threat, but freshman and sophomore Democrats who seized seats from the GOP in 2006 or 2008 are now seen widely as interlopers in their districts.
My colleague David Wasserman, the House editor of The Cook Political Report, points out that in the past two weeks a dozen House incumbents, six Democrats and six Republicans, have been held under 70 percent of the vote in their primaries. Many of their challengers raised and spent very little money. The dozen are:
IN-03 Mark Souder (R) 48 percent IN-05 Dan Burton (R) 30 percent IN-09 Baron Hill (D) 69 percent NE-02 Lee Terry (R) 63 percent NC-08 Larry Kissell (D) 63 percent NC-11 Heath Shuler (D) 61 percent NC-06 Howard Coble (R) 64 percent NC-10 Patrick McHenry (R) 63 percent OH-02 Jean Schmidt (R) 62 percent OH-06 Charlie Wilson (D) 69 percent WV-01 Alan Mollohan (D) 44 percent WV-03 Nick Rahall (D) 67 percent
In primaries earlier this year, two Democrats and two Republicans similarly won with 70 percent or less:
IL-07 Danny Davis (D) 67 percent TX-04 Ralph Hall (R) 57 percent TX-12 Kay Granger (R) 70 percent TX-18 Sheila Jackson Lee (D) 67 percent
Republicans should be grateful that so few of their members supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Although TARP kept the U.S. and world economies from going off a cliff, conservatives view the rescue program as a dangerous government overreach and a bailout of the powerful.
Voting for TARP hurt Bennett more than anything else. Support for the program likewise plagues Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is facing an aggressive primary challenge from a conservative populist, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. In some places, Republican voters show a clear desire to purge moderates from the party. The fear of losing a GOP primary drove Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to become a Democrat and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to seek the Senate as an independent.
These hurricane-strength forces contain an anti-incumbent element, but Democrats should not take much solace from that. By every polling dimension, it is becoming clear that a vote cast in a Republican primary against a GOP incumbent is not a general election vote for a Democrat. Rather, it is a chance to hurt an incumbent in Washington without voting for a Democrat. I remain convinced that Rep. Joseph Cao, who represents a heavily African-American and Democratic district in New Orleans, is the only Republican member of the House or Senate who is in serious danger of losing in the general election.
The explosive mood of today's voters was not just evident at the Republican convention in Utah and in the Democratic primary in West Virginia. It also blew in big changes in the United Kingdom, where voters routed the ruling Labor Party from office, and in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats suffered significant setbacks in regional elections. The interesting aspect of the German election is that it was a populist rebellion against Europe's bailout of Greece, akin to the strong anti-TARP dynamic in the United States.
The 2010 electorate has shown more anger than I have seen before. Every incumbent is at least a bit endangered, but those in the party that holds all the power in Washington are the ones who should be truly afraid.
This article appears in the May 15, 2010, edition of National Journal.