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Inside Politics

Greenfield: A gathering anti-incumbent storm?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- A governor, two House members, 17 state legislators in Pennsylvania, a U.S. senator -- maybe two.

What do they have in common? They're all incumbents who lost (or may well lose) a primary. As they say in the news biz with barely contained lust: "Is this a trend?"

Well, it is unusual for this many to lose in one season. Sen. Joe Lieberman's loss to Ned Lamont in Connecticut earlier this month puts him in an unhappy rare category. Since 1980, we've had only three incumbent senators lose primaries. Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island is in danger of joining that club. He's no better than even money to win his primary against conservative Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey.

And Alaska's Frank Murkowski is only the fourth governor to lose a primary in the last 12 years. (Full story)

The trouble with extrapolating from these and other incumbent defeats, though, is that there seems to be no common explanation. Sometimes it's a question of character or personality.

In Alaska, Murkowski gained a reputation for aloofness, even arrogance; he appointed his daughter Lisa to fill out his term in the U.S. Senate and wanted a jet plane for his travels. In Georgia, Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney lost her primary -- for the second time in four years, by the way -- after a publicized altercation with a Capitol Hill police officer.

The other key reason is policy or ideology. Lieberman lost in Connecticut for not being enough of a "real" Democrat, for being out of step with his party's antiwar sentiments on Iraq, as well as for views he's held on everything from affirmative action to school vouchers to the Terri Schiavo case.

In Rhode Island, Chafee is being pushed for not being Republican enough. He's the most independent, or least loyal, Republican in the Senate. He didn't even vote for President Bush in 2004, announcing he'd written in Bush's father.

In fact, the most eye-opening incumbent defeats happened in Pennsylvania last May -- largely beneath the national media radar -- when 17 state legislators were thrown out, including the top two Senate GOP leaders. This was a classic response to what was seen as arrogance -- last-minute pay raises and increases in benefits.

But if there's no common explanation for these losses, that doesn't mean we can't draw some modest notions about the broader meaning of these votes. For me, it lies in the emergence of the Internet as an organizing and money-raising tool.

The power of the Web may be easy to overanalyze; but when it comes to unhappy party members, its potential is clear: disaffected voters now have an efficient mechanism with which to bypass a party establishment that is inclined to protect incumbents.

For instance, national Republicans are backing Chafee, despite his maverick ways, because they fear a conservative candidate will likely lose in November, threatening GOP control of the Senate. But the Web makes it easier for conservatives angered at Chafee's voting record to get money to his opponent and to reach out to like-minded voters.

Indeed, my own quirky notions have made me curious to see what happens in the New York Senate primary, where Sen. Hillary Clinton's relatively hawkish views on national security don't sit well with a lot of liberals. Her primary opponent, Jonathan Tasini, has no money and no support -- he's now at 15 percent in the polls. If he winds up with a whole lot more primary votes, it will be sign for less secure incumbents that there's a new ball game out there.


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