Weather Forecast


Voters may say 'no' to incumbents this time

"There's a 'political rebellion' brewing in America that is touching both Democratic and Republican incumbents."

There was a time, way back when George Washington was president, when the public wasn't angry with Washington, D.C. That was because the nation's capitol was in New York City.

Two centuries later, distrust of government is as all-American as super-sized portions. The citizenry's disgust and distrust of Washington has formed an ill wind, threatening to carry away all incumbents. In modern terms, this year's election whirlwind promises to Leave No Incumbent Behind (LNIB).

Incumbents are a threatened species. Come November, this cyclone may sweep clean the Capitol Hill's hallways, taking with it a combined total of centuries' worth of legislative know-how and institutional memory. It has the potential to destroy what will remain of the political middle ground.

Voter distrust of incumbents is distinctly the issue in Florida where a proven leader, Gov. Charlie Crist, exited the Republican primary over the galloping challenge of silk-stocking reactionary Marco Rubio. Voters' incumbent distrust was also paramount in Utah where an exemplary public servant and reliable conservative, Sen. Robert Bennett, lost the Republican primary to two Tea Party ideologues.

Washington Republican leadership is composed of seasoned politicians and their special-interest lobbyists who have mastered the dark arts of media manipulation. They've grown cynical over the success of their clear-headed, coldly deliberate use of emotionally outrageous statements, incivility, falsehoods and the language of violent rebellion.

Many in the Republican Party base have migrated to the Tea Party, without breaking ties with the Republican Party. My sense of fair play compels me to warn them: The Republican Party is not your friend.

Republican Party professionals had a strong hand in creating the Tea Party movement. They now find themselves facing an energized group of activists that is unhappy with the establishment. The Tea Party people, like those on the far political left, are purists. They not only believe that they are the true Americans, but that they alone possess the right interpretation of all things constitutional.

Former GOP Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma said it best: "Increasingly...constitutional constraint (is) being driven from the process. One is expected to listen -- and to obey -- the preferences, indeed the demands, not of 'constituents' but of that small band of constituents who dominate party primaries and party conventions."

That brings us to the next major primary, when we will see if the Tea Party people have caught on yet to the fact that the Republican Party is using them. We will see if they're able to tap into the anti-establishment vote on their own. If Tea Party candidate Rand Paul beats Kentucky's Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the choice of the Washington Republican establishment, then this movement has legs.

The situation in West Virginia is different. The defeat of 14-term Congressman Allan Mollohan, D-W.Va., wasn't just about antiincumbent feeling; it's because of long-standing ethics charges that finally caught up with him. Voters are just not in the mood to look the other way.

Finally, the Hawaiian, mail-only, special election for Congress reveals just how perilous the political winds are this electoral season. Longtime Rep. Neil Abercrombie has decided to run for governor. Three candidates to fill his congressional seat are moderates -- lawyers and political veterans fighting to replace him. But, a messy, adolescent-like squabble between the two Democrats has given the GOP a chance to win this seat. As the Honolulu Star-Bulletin put it, although thoroughly Democratic, the "District ... will go Republican if it can't find a Democrat it likes."

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter refused to let an autocratic minority of his own party end his public service, so he became a Democrat. Ironically it now looks as if Democratic Party purists have a shot at defeating him. This race is the litmus test of anti-incumbent feeling.

Should toxic, anti-establishment feelings manifest itself, it will be clearest during the rest of the primary season. This primary season, more than most, is an interesting one to watch on both sides of the partisan divide. Which faction will prevail? How strong is the current anti-incumbent tidal wave.

It's always tough to know exactly what is going to be the issue du jour six months out. In the 2006 mid-term elections, voters viewed the Republican majority as out of touch. In 2008, the economy hit the skids right after Labor Day, and the GOP never regain their footing.

I have to imagine something is going to be dominating this year, as well. The key for Democrats, as well as Republicans, will be to put themselves in the best possible position to demonstrate to the voters that they are listening.

But, the bottom line: The results this fall will be taken as a comment on President Obama's leadership and policies. Still, there will be those voters turning out to send a message to Washington. Can't wait to see how this all will play out. As John Boehner, House Minority Leader, said, "The American people are awake."

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.