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Signs of Turbulence

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Amid all of the sophisticated -- and more than a little hyperventilated -- analysis on Tuesday night after the primary defeats of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., and Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich., I received an e-mail from a friend who is a senior national political correspondent for a major national newspaper: "If I were an incumbent with the least bit of worries, I'd be pooping my pants."

That earthy observation was the most thoughtful take I heard, even though incumbents' losing primaries is nothing new. Indeed, in nonredistricting years over the past two decades, an average of two House members have failed to win renomination -- exactly where we are today with the McKinney and Schwarz losses. Among senators, primary defeats are rarer; the losers tend to be appointees.

But even though it's not unheard-of for primary voters to hand members of Congress their walking papers, this year's primary results -- combined with Congress's abysmal job-approval ratings and extremely high "wrong track" numbers -- indicate a very volatile, turbulent election year, the kind that incumbents hate for good reason. The advantages of incumbency count for less in such years.

The tide in favor of Democrats this year means that very few Democratic incumbents are facing strong challengers. The Cook Political Report no longer rates the contest of any House Democrat as a toss-up. Ten Republican House members are in that category.

In the current political environment, I would much rather be one of the eight House Democrats in the "lean Democratic" category than one of the 17 House Republicans whose races "lean Republican." Yet anyone looking for a grand message in Tuesday's results should pay more attention to my friend's reaction than to grandiose declarations about what is happening inside either party.

Even some of Lieberman's staunchest supporters concede that he has not been keeping his fences mended back home. He has "gone national."

Certainly, his voting record has come to resemble that of a conservative or moderate Democrat from the South or the Rockies rather than that of an average Democratic senator from New England. And on certain very visible votes, such as authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq and trying to block the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, Lieberman's views ran counter to the overwhelming majority of his state's Democratic primary voters.

Had Lieberman kept his fences in good repair and stayed more in sync with his party's base, he could have avoided Tuesday's upset.

The pressure on Lieberman not to run as an independent will be great, but not nearly as strong as it would have been if he had lost by double digits. In the end, though, if Republicans do not switch their own nominee, there is virtually no chance that the seat will fall into GOP hands.

Michigan's Schwarz, meanwhile, had been in a precarious position since winning his seat in 2004. A moderate, he won the GOP primary that year with just 28 percent of the vote because the conservative base was split five ways. This year, his campaign exacerbated his problems by ignoring expert advice on how to fend off conservative challenges, as Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., did in 2004.

Moreover, Schwarz failed to strongly return fire when conservative former state Rep. Tim Walberg and the anti-tax Club for Growth attacked him. So, like Lieberman, while ideology got Schwarz into trouble, careful maneuvering could have saved him.

In McKinney's case, the lesson is simply that there is a limit to how outrageously a lawmaker can behave before incurring a political price. McKinney should have learned that in 2002, the first time she failed to win renomination.

But even though Tuesday's losing incumbents might well have avoided their fates, lawmakers facing credible challengers this fall have reason to worry. And that's most true, of course, for the Republicans.

 
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