Some Race Results Matter More Than Others

May 14, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

This year, it’s harder than ever to distinguish what really matters from what doesn’t. Special situations are adding to the confusion, as is a fickle public, which is showing a willingness to change its positions in the blink of an eye.

In Hawaii’s special Congressional election to fill the opening created by the resignation of Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Republican Charles Djou certainly looks headed for an upset victory over two Democrats, former Rep. Ed Case, who has already represented the other half of the state in Congress, and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who has been described by the local media as “the candidate of the Democratic Party establishment.”

With Djou leading in polls and local Democrats unable to agree to support a single candidate in the election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has announced that it won’t spend any more resources on the race, which it now thinks is unwinnable.

That’s a stunning decision given the Democratic nature of the district, but it reflects the DCCC’s frustration with the race — and particularly with the state’s two Senators, who remain bitter about Case’s 2006 Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Daniel Akaka and have refused to encourage Hanabusa to exit the race.

Since the two Democrats are effectively dividing the Democratic vote and allowing Djou to win with far less than a majority of the vote, the outcome doesn’t say much of anything about November. The outcome isn’t irrelevant, but it certainly isn’t an indicator of things to come.

The special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th district is a far more important event, since it’s a head-to-head contest in a Democratic part of the state. But while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won the district narrowly in 2004 and Al Gore carried it more comfortably in 2000, Barack Obama lost it narrowly in 2008.

This is the kind of district where voters could use the special election as an opportunity to send a message of dissatisfaction about the Obama presidency and the Democratic Congressional agenda.

Republican Tim Burns is about as strong a candidate as Republicans could have hoped for. I interviewed him months ago as well as in late April, and I found him to be a more poised and polished candidate than I did during his first visit.

Given the large Democratic registration advantage in the district and the district’s strong support for the late Rep. John Murtha (D), Democrat Mark Critz, who was an aide to Murtha, should have an advantage in the race. A Burns victory would be a bad sign for Democrats for the fall.

Recent events in Utah certainly were noteworthy but not as instructive as the media coverage would suggest.

Nominating conventions are usually dominated by activists and ideologues, and purists at both the state GOP convention and the Democrats’ 3rd district convention showed their muscle, if not their brains.

Republican delegates denied Sen. Bob Bennett even the right to go to a primary to win renomination, and Democrats in the 2nd district forced Rep. Jim Matheson into a primary with a more liberal opponent who criticized the Congressman’s vote against health care reform.

Conventions produce different outcomes than primaries, so the results in Utah say more about the process than the voters. But the results are a reminder that the ideologues are particularly intolerant and vociferous this cycle.

Finally, the dramatic changes in the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania, the Republican Senate primary in Florida and the GOP gubernatorial primary in California are worth remembering throughout the cycle.

Rep. Joe Sestak’s campaign seemed very much stalled until a single brilliant TV ad jump-started it and changed the Democratic Senate race in Pennsylvania fundamentally. Using video of party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter (D) together with former President George W. Bush, Sestak redefined the choice Democratic primary voters face. Now it is Specter who will need to come from behind.

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist went from popular frontrunner in the GOP race to controversial also-ran in the Republican primary to Independent candidate in a matter of months. A year ago, nobody thought that could happen.

Similarly, in California, Republican Meg Whitman built up a large lead in the gubernatorial primary, only to see it largely evaporate when her opponent, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, hit her in a TV ad for her association with Goldman Sachs.

Whitman’s 50-point lead in a March Public Policy Institute of California poll has fallen to 2 points in a recent SurveyUSA poll.

These kinds of reverses ought to make favorites and frontrunners feel uncomfortable, whether Democratic Senators such as Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and Michael Bennet in Colorado or Republican Senate hopefuls Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Sue Lowden in Nevada.

On the other hand, I’m not yet a believer in some races where recent polls show tightening in general election ballot tests, including Senate races in Iowa and North Carolina. That’s because I expect the 2010 midterms ultimately will be a referendum on Democratic control of the White House and Congress, making for a very difficult political environment for Democratic challengers in both states in the fall.