Pennsylvania's primary results are likely to add to the jitters of political officeholders facing voters in November's mid-term elections.
Seventeen legislators, including the top two Senate leaders, were ousted Tuesday (May 16) in the biggest upheaval in a Keystone State primary in more than a quarter century.
Pennsylvania's was the latest in a string of early primaries this year in which a total of 25 incumbent legislators, including six high-ranking leaders, have been tossed out - a rare occurrence for sitting state lawmakers who rarely face tough primary competition. In the 10 primaries held so far, powerful legislative leaders also were given the boot in Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia.
The election returns are the latest sign that an anti-incumbent mood may be spreading through the electorate. Recent national polls have shown a growing disenchantment among voters with their elected representatives in the Republican-led Congress. While the polls focused on congressional races, the primary elections serve as the first indication that officeholders at the state level also may have reason to worry about re-election.
About 84 percent of the seats in 46 state legislatures are up for election this year, along with 36 governors, 33 U.S. Senate seats and the entire U.S. House of Representatives.
"It's certainly a stunning wake-up call that no one is safe," said Tim Storey, an elections expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures
. But he said it's too early in the election cycle to conclude that a wave of anti-incumbent feeling is building and could lead to more upsets in statehouses through the fall. "If you look at the places it's happened, they all have their own unique circumstances that don't necessarily carry across state lines," he said.
In Pennsylvania, where a legislative leader had not lost re-election since 1964, a combination of voter anger over a legislative pay raise, grassroots political activism and Republican intra-party fighting led to Tuesday's stunning results.
Voter fury was ignited by a dead-of-night vote in the General Assembly last year to raise salaries of all elected state officials - including judges — up to 54 percent, along with media reports of legislator largess such as $100 per diems and premium health insurance for life.
Lawmakers repealed the pay raise after angry voters, for the first time in state history, refused to retain a sitting state Supreme Court justice in November's municipal elections. In their first chance since the pay raise to cast ballots in legislative races, the Republican electorate Tuesday rejected Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer (R)
and Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill (R)
- who collectively have 56 years of experience -- in favor of two more conservative newcomers.
In all, 14 Republicans and three Democrats lost in the legislative primary. While the pay raise appears to be a chief factor, there was more at play in the legislative election, including liberal groups demanding government reforms and a long-brewing intra-party fight between GOP conservatives and moderates. Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 1992 with ever-widening majorities, and from 1994 to 2002 controlled all but one statewide office in government.
"These are party battles," said Michael Young, a political analyst and pollster based in Harrisburg, Pa. "Legislative incumbents don't lose. It's the rarest of events in Pennsylvania politics."
Some Republicans suggested Scranton, who endorsed Jubelirer's opponent, was settling a bitter score. Scranton dropped out of the race for governor earlier this year after his party and legislative leaders passed over him and chose to back former Hall of Fame football player Lynn Swann
to challenge Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell
Many of the GOP challengers, who filed to run in near-record numbers, are fiscal and social conservatives who took pledges to forgo legislative perks, per diems and pay raises, said Eric Epstein, head of RocktheCapital.
"I just think it was an opportunity to cut off the head of the power structure in Harrisburg," Epstein said. "We structured a model for bipartisan cooperation to make reform possible."
While the Legislature's moves to include Indiana in daylight-saving time and lease the Indiana Toll Road to a consortium of foreign companies got headlines, the key issue in Garton's race was his support for extensive health insurance benefits for legislators, their families and even ex-spouses, Hadley said. Garton's challenger also blasted the 36-year veteran for his votes against stringent abortion restrictions, Hadley said.
In North Carolina, conservative Republicans also banded together to defeat House Speaker Pro Tem Richard Morgan (R)
and two other Republican state representatives in the May 2 primary. Morgan and his colleagues were part of a "gang of five" who sided with Democrats in a power-sharing arrangement when the House was evenly divided politically for a time in 2003.
While 19 state legislators ousted in the first 10 primaries are Republican, six Democrats also have been sent packing: the three Democrats in Pennsylvania, West Virginia House Majority Leader Rick Staton
, Kentucky's Rep. Gross Lindsay
, a judiciary committee chairman, and one other Kentucky House member.
J. Michael Bitzer, political scientist at Catawba College
in North Carolina, said the primary results, combined with recent polls showing widespread dissatisfaction with Congress, could mean trouble for other incumbents in the November elections. "With the country in such an anti-status-quo mood, I think it will affect all levels of government," he said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll
released May 17 found that 55 percent of respondents said they were inclined to consider someone besides their current congressional representative in this year's elections. That figure is the highest since Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994, according to the Post's
analysis. Still, 62 percent said they approved of their own representative's performance.
An April 20 poll
by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found a "strong appetite for change in Washington." It found a majority of voters (53 percent) said they would like to see most members of Congress defeated in November, while 28 percent wanted to see their representative turned out. "Both measures reflect anti-incumbent sentiment not seen since late in the historic 1994 campaign," the poll report said. (The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Stateline.org
are both projects of the Pew Research Center.)
Shifts in federal elections do not always coincide with changes in partisan control at the state level. While Democrats lost the presidency and congressional seats in the 2004 elections, they captured new majorities in 10 state legislative chambers and netted more than 60 seats nationwide.
But twice in recent election history, shifts at the state level have preceded momentous changes in Congress' partisan composition.
In 1992, Republicans increased the number of statehouses they controlled from eight to 19 — two years before the so-called "Republican Revolution" gave the GOP majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate. In 1972, Democrats increased the number of statehouses they controlled from 26 to 37. Two years later, Democrats netted 49 congressional seats as the nation reacted to the Watergate scandal of Republican President Richard M. Nixon.
Peter Durantine is a free-lance journalist in Harrisburg, Pa.