Tuesday's primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas will either go a long toward answering a series of questions about the 2010 elections, or it will tell us something about a moment in time, with no temporal carry over. Here are the questions I'll be asking: (1) Can the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee transfer its "Special Election In a Box" field operation to Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District? (2) Will the White House make nice to Joe Sestak? (3) Assuming she wins the most votes, how did Sen. Blanche Lincoln pull it off in Arkansas? And what did labor get for its $6-7million? And will D.C. Morrison force a run-off? (4) In Kentucky, is Rand Paul ... Ron's Son, or a sui generis Tea Party success?
1. PA 12: By conventional wisdom's standards, Republicans should own this race. Economy: horrible. Party in power: unpopular. Previous incumbent: scandal-ridden. President's approval rating: below 40 -- ten points (or more) below his 2008 election percentage. But the race between Tim Burns (R) and Mark Critz (D) to succeed John Murtha is very close, even factoring in turnout considerations for the other major Democratic statewide races. Can the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee transfer its "Special Election In a Box" field operation to Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District? The D-Trip really knows how to win special elections. (Ten in a row!) Its targeting director has been in the state for more than a week. And Critz's campaign has managed to gain real traction in painting Burns as the avatar of the policies that brought the economy to its knees. Union allies like SEIU have figured out how to message in the district without mentioning Obama. Burns's campaign can best be encapsulated by this ad, which begins with the candidate (who looks strikingly like the POLITICO's Jonathan Martin) looking to camera, asking, "If you think we need more bailouts, more government, and higher taxes and that Nancy Pelosi's values are your values, then Mark Critz is your candidate...." If Burns wins, then Republicans will point to an enthusiasm gap, and it will be fairly interpreted as a harbinger of doom for Democrats in the fall. If it's close, or if Critz wins, then the political class may want to rethink some of its assumptions about the political environment.
2. PA SEN (D): Will the White House make nice to Rep. Joe Sestak? Now, Washington wrote-off Sen. Arlen Specter two weeks ago. Washington doesn't have a very good track record when they write-off candidates. Still, I'd bet on Sestak right now. But the level of concern among Democrats that he wins: zero. Remember: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which was forced to back Specter because the White House was backing Specter, once recruited Joe Sestak to run against ... Specter. They don't dislike the guy. And in a general election against Republican Pat Toomey, a guy who spent ten years on Wall Street as a derivatives trader (remember Rahm Emanuel's credo: if the GOP says "bailout," Dems should say "derivatives," Sestak has a great profile to run in this environment. Still, Specter is like a cockroach. He's hard to kill. Toomey has been smart, is putting together an aggressive campaign, and been nowhere -- that is -- no one has engaged him, yet. He has a nice lead in the polls, and either Democrat will face a tough series of obstacles to even the race.
3. AR SEN (D): Will D.C. Morrison, the right-leaning Democrat who captures about 6 percent of the vote in the primary, force a run-off? Probably. But will Blanche Lincoln, declared dead three months ago, win the most votes? Probably. And that's a comeback story to write about, given all the attention that her main opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter has received, all the outside money (mainly from unions) that has flooded in the state to support him, and given Lincoln's issue profile at the outset of the race. Lincoln found a good way to talk about her clout in a way that didn't necessarily draw attention to the mechanism by which she wielded it, i.e. as part of the establishment in Washington. Her campaign focused on concrete deliverables. And she managed to effectively question Halter's sources of funding -- DC-based interest groups, or liberal interests, with help from the right-leaning Americans for Job Security, which has run ads blasting Halter. What about organized labor? They spent, according to some estimates, as much as $7 million against a Democrat. If Halter doesn't clear the 50 percent bar with a victory, will it have been worth it? Do they continue to spend to beat Lincoln in a run-off, assuming that Morrison's supporters drift over to Lincoln? The yes argument proceeds thusly: "Labor went into a state with few union members and little progressive base and gave an incumbent senator a run for her money. Unions sent a signal across the Democratic House and Senate caucus that we will not be patsies. If we can cause a senator in Arkansas to have to fight tooth and nail -- and use valuable resources to protect a seat, we can do it anywhere." The no argument is that Lincoln survived. If she survives, that is. On the Republican side, we'll see if Republican frontrunner John Boozeman gets to 50. Either way, with Obama's approval ratings below 35 percent in this state, it's hard to see any Democrat becoming competitive.
4. KY SEN (R): The flashiest race of the night is in Kentucky. If ophthalmologist Rand Paul defeats Tray Grayson, the establishment-backed candidate for the GOP nomination, even a blind party would feel the slap across the face. The Tea Party movement took root here; conservative and conserving, older, middle class, economically anxious, rooted in ruminating constitutionalism, angry that the elites of the overclass (socialists in the Obama government) are spending money on people below their own stations in life. The Tea will be sweet Tuesday night, no doubt, but there is something unique about the Paul candidacy, something that makes it difficult to credit the Tea Party with the entire victory. Rand Paul is Ron Paul's son. And Ron Paul has a campaign in a box, with hundreds of very eager, very dedicated, very smart young politically active libertarians doing yoeman's work on behalf of his son. Rand is his father's son -- and his father is an archetypal economic libertarian at a time when the Republican base is swinging in that direction. The forward-looking question is: Is Rand Paul MORE than his father's son? Two sub-questions: how much of his support on election day comes from Tea Party identifiers and supporters, and how much of it comes from generic Republican disgust with the powers that be in their own party? It will be difficult to answer this question.
It will be difficult for either Democrat, former Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and current Attorney General Jack Conway, to beat Rand Paul in a Republican wave election year. Paul seems to be a meaty target, but his supporters are fervent, and Kentucky ... well, it's just hard to see how Kentucky's Democrats and progressives enthusiastically turn out in November. Stranger things have happened, one of which is Paul's improbable candidacy.