Election results: less "anti-incumbent" than "anti-Arlen" | Slag Heap
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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Election results: less "anti-incumbent" than "anti-Arlen"

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 2010 at 8:05 AM

OK, no need to belabor the "anti-incumbency" meme to explain yesterday's election results. Especially because that line is probably being oversold, at least as far as Pennsylvania is concerned.

Yes, Joe Sestak's victory speech -- which celebrated his win over Arlen Specter -- touted it as a triumph "over Washington" as much as anything else. (More about Sestak's win later today. Suffice it to say that in a way, it's still hard for me to believe: The Sestak election party in Pittsburgh was only slightly better attended than the one thrown for last-place gubernatorial candidate Joe Hoeffel.) And truth to tell, Sestak has probably confounded the Democratic establishment -- from the White House on down -- more thoroughly than his GOP rival Pat Toomey EVER has. So there. 

But overall, it's hard to see where Pennsylvania's election results showed an anti-incumbent mood. It's just Arlen Specter we were sick of. 

Sure, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato characterized himself as a "Harrisburg outsider" when he won the part's gubernatorial nod. But that's a pretty dubious claim: Onorato had the support of Governor Ed Rendell in everything but name, and had access to all the campaign contributors and political insiders the lame-duck governor could muster. 

Not that Onorato's win is a bad thing, necessarily. He won Allegheny County with 52 percent of the vote, which ain't too bad considering voters here had another local option to go with -- the genial state Auditor General Jack Wagner. In any case, the Pittsburgh Comet strikes what seems to be the right note about Onorato. We really could do a lot worse. 

Joe Hoeffel, the favorite of balding progressives, got shellacked, finishing last in the state and in the county. It was so sad that his own supporters didn't seem saddened: Hoeffel's election-night gathering at Shadyside's Walnut Grill wasn't even funereal ... because the body had been buried so long before.

Some have faulted Hoeffel for not running more aggressively against Dan Onorato, but I can't see it making a difference. Anthony Hardy Williams ran a slew of ads blasting Onorato for promulgating a drink tax, and a host of other sins. But in Allegheny County -- where you'd expect such charges to have the most impact -- Williams was in the single digits. Had Hoeffel taken up that theme, would it have helped him? Doubt it: Williams had a LOT more money to buy ads with.

In any case, to a surprising extent this was a GOOD election to be a party insider. State Rep. Bill DeWeese, who in many minds symbolizes a Harrisburg culture gone wrong, won his primary challenge, though with a miniscule margin of victory. (Philly Republican rep. John Perzel, who like DeWeese is facing charges of using state resources for poiltical work, trounced his primary challenger.)

Closer to home, incumbent state Rep Jake Wheatley dispatched rivals Tonya Payne and Mark Brentley with 60 percent of the vote.

And then there's the 20th legislative district, where Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's brother, Adam, managed to win with a scant 40.5 percent of the vote. Because as most of us saw coming, his three rivals split the anti-Ravenstahl vote. (The progressive favorite in this race, Tim Tuinstra, pulled a Hoeffel and finished last.) Given Ravenstahl's advantages -- the party endorsement, the famous nam, etc. -- not winning a majority seems like a pretty paltry victory.

In some ways, the GOP had a similar problem in the closely-watched special election in the 12th Congressional District. There you had Republican Tim Burns trying to beat Democrat Mark Critz in the special election, while fighting a bitter primary battle with fellow Republican Bill Russell. Burns won the primary, but lost the special election. Would things have been different if the GOP wasn't fighting its own internal battle, and concentrated on turning out independents and others in the special? Maybe. But as it was, Critz -- who campaigned as successor to the late John Murtha -- ran a winning campaign that enshrined the memory of the Ultimate Incumbent.

But the lesson in these down-ticket races, I think, is that even if there IS an anti-incumbent mood, incumbents do pretty well when their opponents don't have their shit together.

And as for the Republican primary in Congressional District 4? Hard to make much of Mary Beth Buchanan's defeat to Keith Rothfus (although you could almost hear Cyril Wecht rubbing his hands with glee on KQV last night, as he congratulated Rothfus on air). On the one hand, Buchanan should have benefited from an anti-incumbent mood -- she's prosecuted some incumbents, including Wecht. But Buchanan's campaign was so stunningly inept that it's hard to draw any lessons from it except, "Don't be a shitty candidate."

I mean, say what you want about Hoeffel: At least the guy kept his dignity. 

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