The biggest loser in this week's tumultuous primary elections wasn't Arlen Specter or President Obama or even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. It was the clubhouse.
In each of the marquee Senate races, the party establishment took it on the chin. Specter, the Republican-turned-Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, had support from every star in the Democratic firmament but was eclipsed by two-term Rep. Joe Sestak. In Kentucky, Rand Paul, a tea party-caffeinated novice with impassioned and occasionally eccentric views, obliterated Trey Grayson, the choice of McConnell and the state GOP leadership. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a precarious runoff by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter despite backing from both Obama and former President Clinton.
The enhanced ability of insurgents to harvest discontent creates a political world where no one is in charge.
The ethos of the clubhouse era was captured in the story of Illinois Democrat Abner Mikva, who -- decades before becoming a House member and then a federal judge -- walked into his Chicago Democratic ward office in 1948 as an earnest law student hoping to volunteer. As Mikva later recounted, a glaring ward committee member brusquely asked him, " 'Who sent you?' I said, 'Nobody sent me.' He put [his] cigar back in his mouth and he said, 'We don't want nobody that nobody sent.' "
This week's elections were the triumph of the candidates that nobody sent.
Specter's defeat marked an especially telling milestone. Earlier this month, three-term GOP Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah was rejected for renomination by the state Republican Party convention (which instead set up a primary between contenders without elective experience). The last time more than one sitting senator was denied renomination in the same year was 1980, when four got bounced in primaries. In the three decades since, as veteran political analyst Rhodes Cook notes, only four senators have been denied renomination.
This year's Senate casualty list might lengthen. Lincoln's fate in next month's runoff is uncertain after Halter and a conservative challenger held her to just 44 percent of the vote. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., are also confronting serious primary challenges. And although Florida's Republican Gov. Charlie Crist isn't a Senate incumbent, his collapse in the GOP Senate primary there -- to the point where he withdrew to run as a independent -- underscores the eroding capacity of either party's establishment to dictate results.
In the GOP, this upheaval carries a strong ideological tinge, with insurgents such as Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio insisting that Republicans adopt a more militantly anti-government agenda. The Democratic challenges don't send as clear a signal. Although Sestak and Halter generally stand to their rivals' left (and drew support from liberal groups), each emphasized anti-Washington populism, not ideological purification.
Yet the most powerful currents propelling insurgents are identical in both parties. The key short-term force is a tide of dissatisfaction with Washington that is as fierce as any since the late 1970s. In the first Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection poll, released this week, more than 80 percent of all Americans and nearly 90 percent of whites gave Congress poor or "only fair" marks for its performance. Veteran conservative strategist Jeff Bell, who ousted a longtime GOP incumbent in a 1978 New Jersey primary, says that today, as then, primary challenges are being fueled by "a sense that the elites are losing their connection with the voters."
The common longer-term development is the enhanced ability of insurgents to harvest that discontent. Party leaders once controlled a disproportionate share of money and resources, but the Internet now makes it easier than ever for compelling challengers to construct a powerful, even nationwide, network of supporters. (Paul, for instance, raised more than three-fourths of his money outside Kentucky.) Equally important, the base in both parties -- reinforced by activist groups like the liberal MoveOn.org and the conservative Club for Growth -- appears to have grown increasingly intolerant of defection and insistent on lockstep loyalty, especially on big issues.
That makes these trends especially ominous for the congressional compromisers who sometimes stray from their party's consensus (a frequent charge against Specter, Lincoln, and Bennett). But, above all, these changes create a political world where no one is in charge -- an environment that is increasingly volatile and partisan but also more open to new ideas and unexpected ascents. After his own stunning 2008 primary victory over an opponent rooted far more deeply in the party establishment, no one should understand that complex calculus better than the ultimate candidate that nobody sent: Barack Obama.
This article appears in the May 22, 2010, edition of National Journal.