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“The Wave:” Is There Really Anti-Incumbent, Anti-Establishment Backlash?

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Washington -- In an election cycle that has been widely described as a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment from coast to coast, the latest batch of primary election results provide us with a decidedly mixed bag.

Among the incumbent winners is John McCain, the "Maverick" Republican senator from Arizona who rediscovered his core conservative views in the face of an attack from his right by former congressman and current conservative radio host J.D. Hayworth.

And Florida incumbent Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek held off the self-funded campaign of billionaire 'outsider' Jeff Greene in the state democratic senatorial primary.

However, it wasn't all roses for the Capitol crowd.

Votes are still being counted in Alaska's razor tight GOP senatorial primary race, but it looks like two-term Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski could be ousted by Tea Party backed candidate Joe Miller.

This would be yet another victory for a candidate endorsed by the ultimate self-proclaimed Washington outsider, Sarah Palin, who also has a bit of a history with Murkowski; they are familiar rivals in Alaska's small political community and Palin knocked off Murkowski's father, Governor Frank Murkowski in the 2006 Alaska Republican gubernatorial primary election.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is a former congressman and was backed by the Republican Governors Association in the state GOP gubernatorial primary. McCollum was beaten by billionaire and former health care executive Rick Scott, who gave his own campaign $50 million and campaigned as an 'outsider.'

Anti-Incumbent Sentiment?

For months reporters and talking heads around the country have been talking about the anti-incumbent attitude sweeping the country during the 2010 primary season, potentially leading to a national tsunami on election night.

The high-profile incumbents ousted this primary season include five-term Republican-turned-Democratic Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter; three-term Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett and Alan Mollohan, a 14-term Democratic congressman from West Virginia.

However, upon closer examination this primary election cycle is not purging an unusually high number of incumbents.

So far during the 2010 primary season, voters around the country have replaced a total of seven incumbents; three senators and four representatives. Of the 535 total members that make up the U.S. Congress, 472 are up for election in November. That means seven ousted incumbents make up only about 2% of those running for re-election in 2010.

For the sake of comparison, in 2008, four members of the House of Representatives were beaten during the primary season. In 2006, two House members and one senator were defeated. In 2004, four House members fell, while in 2002, eight House members lost along with one senator.

Anti-Washington Insider Sentiment

There is however ample evidence that voters around the country are showing their displeasure for anything that smells like the Washington establishment.

"Certainly there's an anti-Washington mood in the country, voters are skeptical of anything they think of as inside the beltway," said Doug Heye of the Republican National Committee.

Indeed, many Washington establishment candidates, that is, candidates who are not incumbents but have been backed by party insiders, have been clobbered this election cycle.

Charlie Crist, the sitting governor of Florida and a man who was on John McCain's short list of potential Vice Presidential candidates in 2008, was backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee early on in Florida's Republican senatorial primary and ran out to a huge early lead.

Tea Party backed Marco Rubio linked Crist to President Obama and the policies of Washington Democrats and not only forced Crist out of the race, but ultimately from the entire party. Crist is now running as an Independent in a three way race against Rubio and Meek.

Sue Lowden, the Chair of the Nevada Republican party, held a big lead in the GOP senatorial primary last spring and looked like she was going to cruise to victory.

Then the Tea Party Express endorsed conservative former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who ultimately reeled in and defeated Lowden.

In Kentucky, Trey Grayson, handpicked by none other than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, lost his Republican senatorial primary bid to Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. Rand is the son of 2008 presidential campaign candidate Ron Paul, considered a GOP outsider whose unexpectedly powerful libertarian-leaning run was powered in part by an internet phenomenon.

In the Connecticut Republican senatorial primary former Congressman Rob Simmons was vastly outspent and in the end beat by multi-millionaire Linda McMahon, the former CEO of Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment.

While in Colorado, former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton was defeated in a hotly-contested GOP senatorial primary race by Tea Party candidate Ken Buck, who has never held elected office.

Debunking the Labels

The 'insider versus outsider' theme has been widespread this election season. However, it's usually the 'outsider' who is trying to paint the race in those terms.

The aforementioned Rick Scott used the 'outsider' label to his advantage in defeating Bill McCollum in Florida. However, as the founder and former CEO of Columbia Corporation of America, the largest for profit health care company in the U.S., Scott was in the room during many health care reform negotiations with members of congress in the 1990's. Not the kind of background most people would classify as the typical 'outsider.'

Meg Whitman won California's Republican gubernatorial primary running under the 'Sacramento outsider' banner. While it's true Whitman has never been an elected official, she was the CEO of Ebay, a fortune 500 company, and not exactly a 'regular Jane.'

Tea Party Express officials confided to Fox the morning of April 15 that as part of their 'Tax Day' festivities in Washington they had brought along Sharron Angle, and would the endorse her over state party chair Sue Lowden in Nevada's contest to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the general election.

"She's a Dark Horse candidate," said one TPE official. Although that description may fit Angle's strategy, the truth is she was a state assembly woman for six years and made an unsuccessful run for congress in 2006.

J.D. Hayworth ran as a conservative alternative to John McCain's moderate record in the U.S. Senate. However, Hayworth's six terms in the House of Representatives eliminated any chance of him running as a genuine 'outsider.' McCain outspent Hayworth eight-to-one and beat the former radio talk show host by defining him as a phony for appearing in an infomercial promoting a company that touted free government grants to individuals.

Rand Paul also ran as an 'outsider' in Kentucky. However, Rand is the son of a congressman who ran for president in 2008, and bequeathed him a powerful internet fundraising operation. Bad Campaigns

Then there are candidates whose losses are being described as nothing more profound than poorly run campaigns.

One Democratic congressional committee insider had this to say about the 'outsider' candidacy of Jeff Greene, the Florida billionaire Democratic senatorial candidate, "He spent a ton of cash, but ran an awful campaign. It seemed like he assumed he could just go in and buy the race and didn't account for all of his past getting out there... The thing with the yacht and Mike Tyson and all that was pretty bizarre."

A "Wave" or just another election?

To take over the majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans need to flip 39 seats. In the Senate the magic number is 10. In percentages those numbers do not seem overwhelming, 39 House seats constitute less than 10 percent of the total number of 435.

Democrats took 30 seats as they successfully reclaimed the House majority in 2006. In the Newt Gingrich revolution of 1994, Republicans took 50+ seats in wresting the House majority from Democrats for the first time in some 40 years.

The true mark of a 2010 "wave" may be a scenario where Republicans take the majority in the senate, where the GOP has the high bar of flipping 10 seats out of 37 races this fall.

Photo Credit: Fox News