Election results are never quite as tidy as some analysts suggest. Voters almost always send mixed messages. And they stayed true to form on Tuesday.
Yes, the pro-change, anti-incumbent, and anti-Washington sentiments came through, but in the contest that really mattered in terms of trying to sort through clues to November's outcome, the Democratic Party won. That race was the special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District. Holding on in that tough, swing district bolsters the Democrats' argument that even though the national mood is hostile to their party, strong Democratic candidates who run sharp, focused campaigns can still win.
Any Republican who takes solace from picking up Hawaii's 1st Congressional District on Saturday is delusional.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama lost the 12th District (49 percent to 49 percent) by fewer than 900 votes. But now his job-approval rating there is only in the 30s. Democrats should not have won the special election, but they did. And Republicans should be doing some real soul-searching about the reasons for their loss, their 10th consecutive defeat in special congressional elections.
Republicans might have a strong wind at their back this year. But if they fail on campaign mechanics and message, they will not pick up as many seats as they should in this political environment.
As one Democratic pro puts it, "One week they were talking about Obama, another week [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, another week [health care] repeal. They couldn't seem to settle on a message." On the GOP side, a lot seemed to go wrong in the 12th District, and Democrats executed flawlessly.
In the past two election cycles, Democrats -- led on the Senate side by Charles Schumer and on the House side by Rahm Emanuel and then Chris Van Hollen -- leapt onto waves and rode them with perfection, squeezing out a few more wins than they deserved even in very Democratic years. In a comparably favorable environment, Republicans have lost their third straight special congressional election in a purple district.
The fundamentals of this election year still point toward the Republicans' making substantial gains in the House and Senate this fall, with a GOP majority very possible in the House but unlikely in the Senate. But, what happened Tuesday in Pennsylvania's 12th District undercuts that case. And any Republican who takes solace from picking up Hawaii's 1st Congressional District when the votes are counted on Saturday is delusional.
The Hawaii results will simply demonstrate that even in a very Democratic district Democrats can't split their vote in two and expect to defeat the only Republican in the race. When a state's two senators put personal grudges ahead of their party's best interest, bad things happen for their party.
In other contests, Rep. Joe Sestak came on like a gangbuster and beat incumbent Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary. Unencumbered by a 30-year record in Washington and age issues, Sestak will be a stronger nominee than Specter would have been but still will have his hands full with Republican former Rep. Pat Toomey in the general election.
Meanwhile, given the intensity of his support, Rand Paul was expected to triumph over Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the more establishment candidate in their state's GOP Senate primary. But few observers expected such a big Paul victory. Paul clearly has broadened his message beyond the tea party community. In state Attorney General Jack Conway, Kentucky Democrats nominated their more formidable Senate candidate. Republicans nominated the contender thought to be their weaker general-election candidate, but the size of Paul's triumph suggests that his base is growing.
Heading into Tuesday's balloting, it was clear that Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., would not escape a runoff, but the margin by which she led Lt. Gov. Bill Halter was narrower than many observers had expected. Although the track record for incumbents forced into runoffs is not great, one big question is to what extent organized labor and the liberal netroots will continue bankrolling Halter -- in a state that ranks 49th in union membership and where Obama received only 39 percent of the vote. If prudence prevails over vengeance, labor and the liberals will decide that saving a Democratic seat is more important than taking a pound of flesh.
Where does all this leave Republican members of Congress, a group not exactly renowned for introspection, for reverse-engineering a loss and figuring out what went wrong? It might not be a bad time for them to try. In Pennsylvania's 12th, they just lost a race they should have won.
This article appears in the May 22, 2010, edition of National Journal.