Anti-Incumbency’s First Real Casualty

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Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia lost his bid for a 15th term in Congress Tuesday night as state Senator Mike Oliverio wrested the party nomination from the 28-year veteran lawmaker’s grasp.

Mollohan, whose father represented West Virginia’s first district before him, fell prey to a fierce anti-Washington campaign capitalizing on years of ethics complaints and a volatile environment. Oliverio will likely fare better in a tight general election against former West Virginia Republican Party Chair David McKinley than his opponent would have. Mollohan spent the primary trying to paint Oliverio as too conservative — not really much of a liability in a district carried by Bush and McCain — but Oliverio found coal country traction in his vociferous opposition to climate legislation.

For all the fuss made over GOP Senator Bob Bennett’s failure to recapture his party’s nomination last weekend, he was ultimately the casualty of a delegate vote by 3,500 Republican activists, not a rejection by the broader electorate. Mollohan, who hadn’t faced a competitive race since the ’90s, is the first House incumbent to fail a primary test this cycle, and was seemingly punished directly by the voters for his entrenchment in the Washington establishment. Mollohan’s legacy seat, cardinal role in appropriations, muddy ethics history and party loyalty made for a perfect storm of anti-incumbent backlash.

But one loss does not a trend make. The nature of the cycle will come into stark relief next week when Democratic Senators Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln face their own primary challenges in Pennsylvania and Arkansas.