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Froma Harrop | Voter Unrest Could Also Help Democrats

It’s hard to call the outcomes of recent primaries a “voter uprising.” It looks more like democracy in action than a series of coup d’etats. Replacing party establishment favorites with others is only a revolution if one believes in the divine right of incumbents.

It’s hard to call the outcomes of recent primaries a “voter uprising.” It looks more like democracy in action than a series of coup d’etats. Replacing party establishment favorites with others is only a revolution if one believes in the divine right of incumbents.

From a purely partisan perspective, the latest contests have improved Democrats’ prospects for November. Democrats have chosen stronger contenders, and Republicans weaker ones.

Republicans now have an anti-choice, anti-gay rights candidate running for the Senate in, of all places, California. Sarah Palin-endorsed Carly Fiorina defeated former Rep. Bill Campbell, a socially moderate fiscal conservative. An exemplary mainstream Republican, Campbell would have posed a far more formidable challenge to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Conservative activists have given Nevada Democrat Harry Reid a new lease on political life. Facing a tough re-election campaign, the Senate majority leader must feel some relief in facing the radical tea party candidate Sharron Angle, rather than centrist Sue Lowden.

In Florida, meanwhile, the tea party may have cost Republicans an easy Senate win. Its followers demonized Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to the point where he decided to run as an independent. The latest polls now show him edging out Marco Rubio, a tea party hero, with Democrat Kendrick Meek running a distant third.

By contrast, Democratic primary voters have rejected several problematic figures. In West Virginia, they took the nomination away from longtime Rep. Alan Mollohan, who’s mired in ethical troubles. And in Pennsylvania, they wisely chose Rep. Joe Sestak over the broadly disliked Sen. Arlen Specter. A former admiral and polished talker, Sestak is a dream candidate.

Which makes you wonder why Democratic leaders would try to drag Sestak out of any primary race. If they owed Specter a favor for switching parties, that’s one thing. Campaign for him. But trying to lure away solid challengers like Sestak with a job bribe is both oafish and nuts.

The same thing was evidently tried in a Colorado primary race, where former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff was offered a similar deal if he would stop running against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. The November contest is shaping up to be a close race, and Romanoff polls as well or better than Bennet against likely Republican opponents.

These party machinations don’t rise to the level of illegality, but they surpass that of stupidity. Such unseemly dealing tends to be found out, bruising the party’s image, angering the challenger’s supporters and demeaning the preferred candidate.

Needless to say, they are bad for democracy. Incumbent protection plans discourage talented people from running for office, especially if they’re not rich. And they curtail intra-party debates on important issues.

It’s true that activists bearing ideological arms often dominate primary contests, causing candidates with broad appeal to lose the nomination. But electability should be a strong consideration in a well run primary race. And that’s where Republicans are messing up.

The tea party people have every right to their opinions and preferences. But Republican leaders have erred in confusing the movement’s noise with its numbers. As inconsistent as they’re outspoken, the tea partiers have left many other Republicans embarrassed and afraid to speak out. Even the non-tea-party candidates feel they must say extreme things to get the nomination — and if they do, find themselves explaining away their crazy statements before independents and conservative Democrats.

All that said, the tea partiers have done the public at least one good service. They’ve reminded us all of two things: the power of political engagement and that voters don’t have to accept whomever the leadership dishes out.

This should prove a very interesting campaign season.

Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co.

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