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Legacy Content / ON THE TRAIL

Establishment Candidates Hold On

How's That Hopey, Outsidery Stuff Working Out For Ya?

May 5, 2010

Updated at 10:01 a.m. on May 5.

Primaries in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio on Tuesday gave us our first glimpse of whether "outsider" candidates would be able to channel voter anger at the status quo into tangible results. The answer: not so much.

Incumbent Indiana Reps. Mark Souder and Dan Burton -- who faced serious primary opposition from challengers hoping to ride a wave of anti-Washington anger -- both won, albeit narrowly. Both parties' Senate committees saw their "approved" candidates succeed. And top National Republican Congressional Committee recruits like heart surgeon Dave Boucher in Indiana's 8th District were able to beat back challengers who accused them of getting help from the GOP establishment in Washington. The big lesson: Inciting anger is easy, organizing it is hard.

 

Just because the "right" candidate made it out of the primary doesn't mean that they're the best candidate in the general election.

In the Indiana Senate race, the victory of NRSC favorite and former Sen. Dan Coats says more about the difficulty of mobilizing the anti-establishment vote in a multicandidate field than it does about Coats. After all, he won with just 39 percent. State Sen. Marlin Stutzman was Coats' best-funded challenger -- thanks to support from South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint -- but he was never able break away from the three other "outsider" candidates and turn this into a two-person race. In the end, Stutzman took 29 percent while former Rep. John Hostettler took 23 percent and the other two candidates split the rest.

More important, Coats has thus far proven to be a lackluster candidate and a poor fundraiser. And his work as a lobbyist and former senator is going to make it tough for him to "own" the outsider mantle this fall, especially since he's matched up against charismatic former sheriff and current Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D). Yet unlike 2006, when Ellsworth was able to milk his time as sheriff for all it was worth, he now has a four-year voting record as well as an unpopular Congress controlled by his party to defend.

In Ohio, the DSCC saw its favored candidate, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, secure the nomination for the Senate. Yet, like Coats, Fisher hasn't exactly rocked the world with his political skills. Meanwhile, his profile as someone who's been in and out of political office for the last 27 years -- including an unsuccessful run for governor -- isn't the kind of profile that voters are looking for this year.

To be fair, GOP nominee Rob Portman has his own baggage, including tenure in two of the country's most unpopular institutions -- Congress and the Bush White House. In the end, the race becomes a match-up between the guy who presided over Ohio's struggling economy (Fisher) versus the guy who presided over President Bush's budget and trade policies, which are particularly unpopular in this manufacturing-heavy state.

In North Carolina, the good news for the DSCC is that its pick for the Senate nomination, Iraq veteran and state Sen. Cal Cunningham, squeaked into a run-off with Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. The bad news: That means another month of campaigning (and spending) by their eventual nominee while Sen. Richard Burr gets to keep his nearly $5 million in the bank.

It's hard to say who the real "outsider" is in the run-off. While Marshall lacks the support of the national party -- both the DSCC and EMILY's List have shunned her -- as the North Carolina secretary of state since 1997, it's hard to call her anti-establishment.

Does the success of Coats, Fisher and incumbent members in Indiana bode well for other "insider" candidates who face serious primary challenges on May 18 -- Secretary of State Trey Grayson in Kentucky, Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas? Not really.

In Pennsylvania and Kentucky, the anti-establishment vote won't be split among a crowded field like it was in Indiana. But Lincoln does have to worry that the third Democrat in the primary might take even a few percentage points and force her into a run-off with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

More important, just because the "right" candidate may make it out of the primary doesn't mean that they're the best candidate in the general election. Coats and Fisher have a lot of work to do to prove that they're capable of running top-flight campaigns. Grayson is clearly the better candidate in Kentucky, but it's hard to argue that Lincoln and Specter are the strongest nominees for the fall.

CORRECTION: The original version of this column misstated the number of times Lee Fisher unsuccessfully ran for governor in Ohio.

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