Friday, March 05, 2010

Media Reading Way Too Much Into Texas Republican Primary

The media wants to read a national narrative into nearly every important state election. They did so when John Thune defeated Tom Daschle in 2004. They did so again when Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy's vacant Senate seat. And they are doing it now in the Republican primary for governor of Texas. In each of these cases, local issues trumped national. But because those local issues don't feed into national narratives, no one talks about them.

Daschle lost primarily because he openly abandoned South Dakota as his home. That's a huge reason why Chris Dodd was going to lose if he ran for re-election (he officially  moved his family to Iowa to run for president). Now the Connecticut seat is safe for the Democrats. Is this because the state's people are glad a generic incumbent is out?  No, it's because Dodd pissed them off.

Martha Coakley lost because she was a horrible candidate and Scott Brown worked his ass off. On the state level, the combination of hard work on your end and incompetent overconfidence from your opponent can still win you elections.

With Rick Perry's victory in the Republican primary this week, the New York Times claims that Texas has sent a giant vote of no-confidence to Washington.

Even the usually astute Nate Silver is joining the act.

The media narrative is that "Washington is broken. Everyone wants to throw incumbents in Washington out of office."

Is this true?  Yes, but that's beside the point. If partisanship is the problem (which it really isn't, it's that one side gets how to game the system and the other side doesn't), the "solution" seems to be to replace the people from one party and replace them with the other. That's not going to fix Washington at all. Moreover, "Washington" is just a spectre in these individual elections. Rick Perry may have defeated Senator Hutchinson and talked about Washington in doing so, but his definition of Washington was specifically geared to Texas Republican primary voters--i.e. Kay Bailey supports abortion rights (sort of) and may not believe in nullification.

Voters may want to throw incumbents out, but they have no problem replacing them with new people who are going to institute the same strategies as the old. The appeal with the Tea Party people are so supposedly so anti-government seems to the gridlock. It's Tom Coburn bragging about holding up bills and Jim Bunning ending people's unemployment benefits. But I think the whole Tea Party movement is more a media narrative than a real changing force in American politics. And that Texas has so many of these people maybe says a lot about Texas but tells us very little about the nation.

Of course, national politics do play a role on the local level. Some of this media narrative is correct. Democratic voters are complacent and somewhat disenchanted right now. Republican activists are doing a good job of getting their voters out.

But the real reason for most of this anti-Washington feeling is the economy. It's always the economy, stupid. With the economy terrible, people are unhappy. Give us solid economic growth and no other changes to the electorate and the results are radically different.

Now, what does Rick Perry's victory tell us?

1. That the Republican Party in Texas is batshit insane.

2. That is all.

So, should anyone be reading national trends into the "who is craziest" vote this week? I don't think so. Texas Republican primary voters are not exactly the typical American. It's entirely possible that Rick Perry will lose to Bill White in November. If that happens, no doubt the media will spin this as part of a larger anti-incumbent narrative, but it'll probably have to do with the fact that a) Rick Perry is a moron and b) he has gone too far to the right for even a lot of Republicans.

Perry won the Republican Party by moving to the right. And that's a great strategy to win the Texas Republican primary. It's always a good strategy for that voting bloc. It doesn't matter what's going on in Washington, what the economy is like, who is president, or anything else. You can always win by going way right in a Republican primary in Texas. Debra Medina's rise only helped Perry because her hedging on whether the government caused the 9/11 attacks made him looked relatively sane.

That's why I can't take any of these larger narratives about the Texas Republican primary having meaning for national politics seriously. It says nothing except about how crazy the most motivated right-wing Texans are.

And even within Texas, that's hardly a majority of the electorate.

What Kay Bailey Hutchinson's supporters do probably determines much about the November election.  But that's local analysis, which no one on the national level wants to hear.