Anger, upstarts, and flip flops

    Just in case you’re not obsessed with parsing last night’s primary election results in Florida, Arizona, and Alaska, I’ve divined the main plot lines:

    Anger plus money equals victory. It’s been clear all year that grassroots conservative voters are ticked off at the Republican establishment, but perhaps the purest expression of their rage was realized last night in Florida, where a health care mogul with big bucks and heavy baggage somehow knocked off the politically experienced front-runner in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

    Granted, the voters are hungering for outsiders. But this particular outsider, Rick Scott, happened to be the boss of a hospital chain that was forced to pay a $1.7-billion fine after being nailed by the Bush Justice Department for the worst case of Medicare fraud in history. Scott himself was forced to resign as CEO. Meanwhile, his chain of medical clinics is being sued; he gave a deposition in the lawsuit, yet refused to make it public during the primary campaign. The entire GOP power structure lined up against him. He even refused to show up for a televised debate last week. Yet, despite all this, Republican voters decided that he should be their nominee for governor.

    So how did he win? Three reasons. He pumped $50 million of his own money into a statewide advertising blitz. He tossed red meat to the right, by endorsing Arizona’s get-tough law on immigrants. And he was blessed with an opponent, state attorney general Bill McCollum, who had spent virtually his whole life in politics. The worst label for any candidate in 2010 is “career politician,” and Scott refined it by successfully labeling McCollum a “desperate career politician.”

    Just in case you’re not obsessed with parsing last night’s primary election results in Florida, Arizona, and Alaska, I’ve divined the main story lines: Anger plus money equals victory. It’s been clear all year that grassroots conservative voters are ticked off at the Republican establishment, but perhaps the purest expression of their rage was realized last night in Florida, where a health care mogul with big bucks and heavy baggage somehow knocked off the politically experienced front-runner in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

    Granted, the voters are hungering for outsiders. But this particular outsider, Rick Scott, happened to be the boss of a hospital chain that was forced to pay a $1.7-billion fine after being nailed by the Bush Justice Department for the worst case of Medicare fraud in history. Scott himself was forced to resign as CEO. Meanwhile, his chain of medical clinics is currently being sued; he gave a deposition in the lawsuit, yet refused to make it public during the primary campaign. The entire GOP power structure lined up against him. He even refused to show up for a televised debate last week. Yet, despite all this, Republican voters decided that he should be their nominee for governor.

    So how did he win? Three reasons. He pumped $50 million of his own money into a statewide advertising blitz. He tossed red meat to the right, by endorsing Arizona’s get-tough law on immigrants. And he was blessed with an opponent, state attorney general Bill McCollum, who had spent virtually his whole life in politics. The worst label for any candidate in 2010 is “career politician,” and Scott refined it by successfully labeling McCollum a “desperate career politician.”

    Republican leaders aren’t happy about being saddled in a swing state with a rookie candidate who would appear to be grist for Democratic attacks (“Medicare fraud” fits nicely into a 30-second ad), but the upside is that Scott can bankroll his own autumn campaign, thereby freeing up the national GOP to financially aid other candidates elsewhere. That’s good news for Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful Tom Corbett and bad news for his underdog Democratic opponent, Dan Onorato.

    The enthusiasm chasm. All year, the polls have been showing that grassroots Republican voters are far more ginned up for the November elections than their Democratic counterparts. The best way to test that assumption is to look at the actual turnout in actual primary elections – and last night’s Florida senatorial primaries were vivid proof that the assumption is indeed true.

    The contest for the GOP Senate nomination was a foregone conclusion; the winner, Marco Rubio, triumphed over token opposition. The Democrats staged the more spirited and competitive contest; winner Kendrick Meek, an African-American congressman from the Miami area, defeated another self-funding millionaire, financier Jeff Greene (who apparently turned off Democratic voters in part because he had made a pile of money by betting successfully on the collapse of the housing market). One would normally expect to see higher turnout in the more competitive contest – but the opposite occurred. The Republican race drew 1.25 million voters; the Democratic race, only 900,000.  And the gap is particularly significant given the fact that, statewide, there are three quarters of a million more registered Democrats than Republicans. 

    This enthusiasm disparity, replicated in other primaries this spring and summer, is a bad harbinger for the Democrats in November.

    The Alaska conundrum. Tea-party activists insist that the federal government is too intrusive; they’ve backed a string of outsider conservatives who share their philosophy. But perhaps they should be careful what they wish for. The late-night returns out of Alaska show that the tea-partiers, backed by home girl Sarah Palin, may have managed to knock out incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

    In the GOP primary, Murkowski currently trails outsider-upstart Joe Miller by only 1,960 votes. If she winds up losing – it’ll take at least a week to count all the absentee ballots – Alaska will forfeit her seniority next January. Which means that the state most heavily dependent on federal largess would stand to receive a heckuva lot less. And Alaska conservatives would no have the luxury of dispensing “small government” rhetoric while simultaneously benefiting from all that federal bacon.

    Flip flops aren’t always bad. The most notorious flip-flopper of 2010, John McCain, won big last night in his Arizona GOP senatorial primary, spending $20 million to trounce conservative challenger J. D. Hayworth. McCain had to virtually sell his soul – by orchestrating a breathtaking string of flip-flops, by dumping his long-nurtured centrist “maverick” image in order to appease right-wing tea-party anger – but, hey, the guy wanted to win, even if it exposed the vacuum at his core.

    Flip-flops in politics are often assumed to be fatal, but the tea-party folks back home were fine with his – because he flipped their way. The erstwhile champ of immigration reform became a hardliner on border security. The erstwhile “maverick” insisted in an interview that “I never considered myself a maverick” (the word was a fixture in both his presidential campaigns). The erstwhile supporter of cap-and-trade suddenly fell silent on the issue. The erstwhile supporter of campaign finance reform went totally mute. The guy who was open-minded about gays serving openly in the military suddenly closed his mind.

    The big question, after McCain inevitably wins the general election in November, is which McCain will show up in Washington next January. He reminds me of the Robert Redford character in the classic ’72 movie The Candidate. Redford, as Senate hopeful Bill McKay, sheds all his convictions in order to win; after the happy election-night crowd disperses, he winds up in a back room asking himself, “What do we do now?”

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