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Anti-incumbent wave far from being a flood

By Lisa Desjardins, CNN
  • Professor says anti-incumbent wave "considerably exaggerated"
  • Ranks four incumbents ousted so far as special cases
  • Mississippi losing candidate says party machine "much more powerful than we thought"
  • New Mexico candidate says "real hard for regular run-of-the-mill" candidates

(CNN) -- Despite all the calls for new blood in Washington and for Americans to dismiss "career politicians," thus far primary voters mostly have chosen established party insiders over farmers, businessmen and candidates from outside the political realm.

And far more incumbents have survived than have been toppled.

"The idea that there's this huge anti-incumbent wave in the election is considerably exaggerated," said Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz.

Abramowitz believes all four of the incumbents ousted so far are special cases, with two party switchers (Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, Rep. Parker Griffith in Alabama), one facing corruption charges (Rep. Alan Mollohan in West Virginia) and one losing at a closed-vote party convention (Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah).

And with just one exception -- New Mexico congressional candidate Tom Mullins -- the outright winners from Tuesday's House primaries in Alabama, Mississippi and New Mexico were known political figures, backed by members of the establishment.

"We were up against an establishment candidate," said newcomer and businessman Joe Tegerdine, who lost 43 percent to 57 percent to state Rep. Steven Palazzo in Mississippi's 4th congressional district Republican primary.

"The machine driven by party leaders is much more pervasive and much more powerful than we thought," he told CNN Radio.

Regardless of whether an anti-incumbent movement erupts, so far there seems to be a buttressing of the traditional path to power, through party establishments and a political resume.

Perhaps the biggest underdog of the week, New Mexico's Cliff Pirtle, also suffered the greatest loss.

The 25-year-old farmer and first-time candidate lost by some 70 points to former three-term congressman (though not technically an incumbent) Steve Pearce in the state's 2nd district Republican primary.

Pirtle spent $2,200 of his own funds, compared with Pearce's estimated expenditures of about $200,000 on the primary.

"I wanted to go out and prove it didn't take a million dollars to run for Congress," Pirtle said, " but I think I learned the lesson that it does take quite a bit of resources, especially in a district this large to get the name out."

Pirtle acknowledges that Pearce is popular and well-known in the area.

Asked if he thought anyone who works paycheck to paycheck could win a seat in Congress within a few years of trying, the farmer responded, "I'm gonna say no."

He went on.

"It's real hard for regular run-of-the-mill small businessmen who still depend on their daily income to run for Congress."