Welcome Back, Pragmatism

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People are unhappy. They’ve been unhappy for a while: through Enron and the .com bubble bursting, 9/11, two wars, Katrina. They thought Barack Obama would bring change but few have felt the changes he’s wrought: who can imagine how bad the economy could have gotten sans stimulus? It feels bad enough as it is. Then came the Gulf oil spill. If 2008 was a change election, 2010 promised to be even more so. Incumbents are even more unpopular than they were in 1994, the Washington Post told us. Voters favor newcomers 60% to 32%, Gallup reported. Indeed, voters took out their anger at the polls, electing virtually any yokel who promised change, who railed at the Washington establishment. Four congressional incumbents have lost their seats. The narrative thus far has been: throw the bums out.

That is until Super Primary Tuesday. Somewhere along the way, voters on both sides of the aisle re-found their pragmatism. They remembered that viability, not just purity, was also important. In Arkansas, pundits were predicting the demise of two-term conservative Democrat Blanche Lincoln in a run off but voters proved them wrong and Lincoln wrangled a surprise comeback. In Iowa, Republicans bucked the Tea Party trend and gave former four-term governor Terry Branstad another shot at his old job. Likewise, in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, six Tea Party candidates went home disappointed last night as the establishment Republican, State Senator Robert Hurt, ran away with the nomination beating his closest opponent by more than 20 points.

In fact, a surprising number of establishment candidates survived challenges in a season where Washington’s blessing of felt more like a curse. South Carolina State Rep. Nikki Haley prevailed in an ugly primary, which included not one but two accusations of adultery, to win 49% of vote for the GOP nomination for governor (though she still faces a run off she looks likely to win). Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman handily won the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina beat out a moderate and a Tea Party challenger in the Golden State’s GOP primary to take on Senator Barbara Boxer. And Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, looks likely to survive the toughest primary the eight-term incumbent has seen in a decade.

That’s not to say the anti-establishment spirit was nowhere to be found last night. Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons became the first incumbent governor to lose a primary (though that may have more to do with accusations of adultery, an ugly divorce and his pitted battles with Nevada’s legislature). The establishment’s pick to take on Harry Reid, former Nevada GOP Chair Sue Lowden, lost to Tea Party darling Sharron Angle. In South Carolina’s Fourth Congressional District, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis was forced into a run off he looks unlikely to win after only garnering 28% of the vote in the primary. Also in the Palmetto State, a virtual unknown named Alvin Greene won the Democratic primary to take on Senator Jim DeMint with 59% of the vote over Vic Rawl, a former judge and legislator and the establishment pick. Greene, an unemployed vet, spent next to no money, had no website and had hardly been seen since he filed to run.

On the whole, it was a better-than-expected night for Democrats. Lincoln starts her general election as an underdog but most experts say she has a better shot of beating Rep. John Boozman, the GOP candidate, in conservative Arkansas than Lt. Gov. Bill Halter who was much more progressive. And Reid couldn’t have asked for a better candidate in Angle than if he’d picked her himself: the former State representative is a ultra-conservative who supports phasing out Social Security and Medicare; wants to abolish the EPA, and the Departments of Energy and Education; and most recently got into trouble for supporting a prisoner drug rehab program that included massages.

But, as always happens with such hard fought primaries, a lot of healing must be done on both sides ahead of the general election. Lincoln must reach out to a progressive base so infuriated with her it spent $10 million trying to oust her. Haley must still win a run off, but she also faces the challenge of bringing together a divided GOP in South Carolina. And both Whitman and Fiorina have their work cut out for them solidifying their base. But, if Washington wasn’t quite the winner tonight, the big loser certainly was ideological purity.