The Surprises From Tuesday's Primaries

President Barack Obama pauses as he listens to a questions from Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., while attending the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Issues Conference, Wednesday, Feb. 3,2010, at the Newseum in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP

President Barack Obama pauses as he listens to a questions from Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., while attending the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Issues Conference, Wednesday, Feb. 3,2010, at the Newseum in Washington.
AP

We pundits like to pretend that we've got all of the potential outcomes of an election. That way, we're able to say, "Well yes, Katie, in fact, here is why THAT happened." But we get surprised, too. Here's what surprised me about Tuesday's elections:

1. Democratic turnout in Kentucky. For a party that is supposed to be unenthusiastic and depressed, for a race where all the news coverage focused on the brand name Republicans running, turnout for the Democratic Senate race surpassed 2006 levels -- and that was a year when Democrats were quite enthusiastic. This is an auspicious sign for Democrats in the Bluegrass State. Don't know why turnout was as high as it was ... unless our assumptions about the mood of the Democratic electorate are mistaken.

2. Rand Paul = Tea Party. I was surprised by how openly and wantonly Rand Paul embraced the Tea Party movement and credited it for his victory. Surprised because I don't think the Tea Party actually deserves too much credit. It will turn out that most of Paul's voters were traditional conservative base voters who found in Paul an eclectic, authentic economically libertarian candidate who spoke truth to power.

Rand Paul to Dems: Please Bring Obama to Kentucky
Paul: Tea Party Ready to "Flex Some Muscle"

3. Why CNN didn't cover the election during its 9-10pm hour. Not to knock on another network, but on a night when the big story really is politics -- the biggest night of politics until November, the "Biggest Name In News" featured Larry King interviewing Mick Jagger (and a Mick Jagger impersonator). Confusing for viewers who didn't want MSNBC or Fox News spin.

4. I was surprised that the White House didn't let Joe Biden or Barack Obama campaign for Arlen Specter. It might have helped push Specter over the line. And the president, who spent time in Ohio today, clearly had the time to make a pit stop. The reasons why the White House decided not to over-exert their influence at the last minute is confusing. Obama already cut television commercials for Specter, so what would the harm in having Mr. Obama come and campaign for him?

Yes, there's the argument that Mr. Obama hasn't campaigned for any winners since he came into office, but surely that's a product of the political environment and not Mr. Obama. The White House sent mixed messages about Specter, and that may have hurt him in the end. One answer is that maybe Arlen Specter didn't want help in the end; indeed, Biden offered to campaign for Specter on Friday, just three days after his 41-year-old son had suffered a stroke. Specter asked Biden to do radio ads and interviews instead, which Biden dutifully did. This confusion gets at the heart of Specter's problem: he was a man without a solid identity in a year when voters want purity and authenticity.

Joe Sestak: "I Stood Up to My Party"
House Republicans: "We've Got a Lot of Work To Do"

5. Organized labor spent a lot of money to...send a message. As much as $7 million, by some estimates. This was in Arkansas, where it was Blanche Lincoln's opposition to a bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize that prompted the AFL-CIO to find a candidate to challenge her in the primary. Lincoln's opposition to a health care "public option" was the final straw. Even if Lincoln wins the run-off, the Democrat will almost certainly lose the seat to a Republican in the fall. That's a lot of money to send the message to Democrats that they'd better not to take labor for granted.

6. Finally, I was surprised by the outcome in the 12th congressional district of Pennsylvania district. I know a Democrat, Jack Murtha, held the seat since the Ordovician era, but the demography of the district is basically Republican, and both sides had evenly matched field campaigns. But in this environment, the Republican should have won by at least five points.

I was surprised that the effort by the Republican, Tim Burns, to nationalize the race, making it a referendum on President Obama, spending, bailouts and health care, appeared not to work. It's time to think about revising some basic assumptions about the fall elections. It's certainly not a good time to be a Democrat, but there may be a lot more inter-race variability that prognosticators are assuming.

Results:

Roundup: All Winners and Losers
Specter Falls in Pa. Dem Primary to Joe Sestak
Rand Paul Wins Kentucky GOP Primary
Blanche Lincoln, Bill Halter Headed for Run-Off
Dem Wins Special Election for Murtha's Seat

More Analysis:

Specter's Loss Goes Beyond Anti-Incumbent Mood
Where do Tuesday's Winners Go from Here?
Who Had the Better Spin?


The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is CBS News' chief political consultant. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • Marc Ambinder

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