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A Mid-Term Election Preview

It isn’t exactly Super Tuesday, but after voters in four states go to the polls today, we will have a better idea of which incumbents are in trouble this year, and exactly how much trouble they are in.

Only one congressional seat is up for grabs today. Democrat Mark Critz, who was chief of staff to Rep. John Murtha, faces Republican Tim Burns in a bid to complete the remainder of Murtha’s term. Murtha, who died in February, represented the western Pennsylvania district for 36 years, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in the area. Some polls last week gave the edge to Critz, though the race was believed to be close.

The district was the only one in the country to go from supporting Democrat John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004 to backing Republican John McCain in 2008. This could mean Murtha’s old turf is a sort of anti-bellwether, with a track record of picking losers. Still, a Burns victory would strengthen Republican claims that almost any Democrat-held seat is in play this year, while a Critz win would show that the environment is at least survivable for the party in power.

Even if they lose the Pennsylvania race, Republicans are likely to grab a consolation prize in Hawaii on Saturday. A split in the Democratic Party has created an opening for Republican Charles Djou to take the seat previously held by Democrat Neil Abercrombie, who resigned to run for governor. The pickup in solidly Democratic Hawaii would be a windfall for the GOP, but it remains to be seen whether Djou can hold onto the seat in November’s balloting for a full term.

In the Senate, two Democrats could see their careers effectively ended if they lose primary races today. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched to the Democrats just last year after concluding that he could not win a Republican primary. As it turns out, the 80-year-old five-term senator may not be able to win a Democratic primary, either. Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak came from far behind to pull into a virtual tie with Specter in several polls last week, even though Specter enjoys support from virtually the entire party establishment. A few polls even showed Sestak in front.

Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln is in even worse shape. A relatively conservative Democrat, she is being targeted by labor unions who are backing Bill Halter, the state’s lieutenant governor, in today’s primary race. Lincoln has maintained a shrinking lead in polls, but Halter’s campaign has pulled ahead of her in fundraising. If Lincoln survives a potential late surge by Halter, she will be seeking a third term in a Republican-leaning state that overwhelmingly opposes the health care reform legislation for which Lincoln provided crucial support. Her prospects in November, if she gets that far, are not great.

Specter and Lincoln are caught up in what political analyst Charlie Cook has called “the anti-everything mood.” Democrats are not the only victims. Earlier this month, Utah Republicans turned their back on Sen. Bob Bennett, a veteran three-term conservative, in part because he was not conservative enough to suit Utah’s Republicans, and in part simply because he is part of the existing Washington power structure. The same dynamic was evident last week in West Virginia, where Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan, who had been elected 14 times, was dumped in his party’s primary.

These intramural defeats do not represent voters exchanging one party for another. They represent each party’s base asserting its dominance and its revulsion at any record of compromise, which is seen as clear evidence of moral, if not economic, corruption.

The problem, of course, is that compromise is an essential part of our political system, which is built upon checks and balances. By insisting on representatives who never work with one another and who preferably do not even talk with one another, primary voters fuel the very dysfunction in Washington that they have come to detest.

Which brings us to the other two states that are voting today: Oregon and Kentucky. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden should be able to hold on to his seat in Oregon. But Kentucky, where Republican Sen. Jim Bunning is retiring, has turned into a food fight between Secretary of State Trey Grayson and eye surgeon Rand Paul, the son of U.S. Rep. (and 2008 presidential candidate) Ron Paul. Bunning supports Paul, a political newcomer who has tapped into the Tea Party movement for a stream of supporters and cash. Most of the GOP establishment, including Kentucky’s other senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, supports Grayson. The tide has been running strongly toward Paul, who epitomizes the “anti-everything” spirit because he has never run for office before.

Democrats are choosing a candidate in Kentucky today, too, and some analysts say the state will be a toss-up in November. I don’t believe that. Despite having wounded one another in the primary, I think either Grayson or Paul ought to be able to carry the solidly red Bluegrass State this fall.

Then again, this is anything but a normal year in politics, so stay tuned. The next big date on the political calendar is June 8. Ten states, including California, will have primaries that day, and Arkansas will conduct a runoff election if one is required after today’s results.

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