What We Didn't Learn on Tuesday

Those who were looking to Tuesday's primary election results to provide a single, seamless storyline to explain the national mood and serve as a guide to November midterms and the 2012 presidential election, will just have to keep looking.

The anti-incumbent surge that is supposed to swamp President Barack Obama and his party was not much in evidence last night. The poster child for that school of political thought, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, beat back a strong challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a close fight to be the Democratic Senate nominee, and she did it with the help of a perennial incumbent, Bill Clinton.

In Democratic primaries elsewhere, no one seemed safer than incumbents like Harry Reid in Nevada and Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown in California.

Among Republicans, the internal debate continued between the Tea Party and the rest of the party that hews, by comparison, closer to the middle. The Tea Party candidate in Nevada won the GOP nomination to challenge Sen. Harry Reid this fall, and the tawdry fight for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in South Carolina is headed to a runoff between Gresham Barrett and the now-famous Tea Party-endorsed candidate, Nikki Haley, who ran away with the contest but failed to get 50 percent of the vote.

None of the general election matchups emerging from these tough primary battles spells certain doom for the Democratic incumbent, and in some cases incumbents have improved their chances of holding on to the seat. Harry Reid, maybe the most embattled Democratic incumbent after Lincoln, was once regarded as a sure loser. The GOP choice of Sharron Angle greatly improves his chances of holding on to his seat.

Here is what we know for sure after Tuesday night: Whatever the national mood or the political climate or the overarching narrative of the moment, campaigns and candidates will matter most in the end. Super-angry-voter syndrome, often presented as the most prominent feature of the current political landscape is beginning to look increasingly like a fiction invented by those who need to write an end to the story before voters deliver their final verdict.

Indeed, we woke up on Election Day in Washington, D.C., in the political-junkie capital of the world, to one newspaper story that said support for incumbents was at an all-time low (The Washington Post) and another that declared that most Democratic insiders expected Lincoln to lose her race for renomination (Politico).

According to that analysis, Lincoln was so dead going into the Tuesday runoff against Halter that she should have already been packing up her Senate office: "Top Arkansas sources tell us the state's political establishment expects Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) to lose her primary runoff tonight by at least 5 points -- and perhaps 7 to 10, since insurgents have been outperforming their polls this year. That'll make her the fifth incumbent member of Congress to get fired even before November."

Lincoln won solidly with 52 percent of the vote, but that will likely have little effect on muting talk of an anti-incumbency wave that will swamp Democrats in November. At the core of all this anti-incumbency talk is a deeply felt anger among Republican loyalists angry at President Obama who are now engaged in an ideological party cleansing -- making sure that anyone with moderate impulses or any history of working with Democrats understands that there is no room for them in the GOP.

That's what Arlen Specter figured out a year ago, what Bob Bennett in Utah learned a few weeks ago, and what GOP Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina found out in his bid for renomination Tuesday night. Inglis, a Republican who was against the surge in Iraq, voted against oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, and thinks global warming is real, is headed for a June 22 runoff against county solicitor Trey Gowdy. Gowdy led the field with 39 percent of the vote to Inglis' 28 percent. Inglis' chances of holding on to that seat are slim, and Democrats likely have no chance at it.

Democrats have much to worry about in November; if the economy remains anemic and the oil well keeps hemorrhaging thousands of gallons of light Louisiana crude into the Gulf of Mexico, they will be in for a beating. But none of the choices Republicans made on Tuesday should necessarily inspire dread among Democrats.

Campaigns and candidates matter; ask Bill Halter.

In California, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are two interesting but untested candidates who will give two aging Democrats a run for their money, and there will be a lot of money. Whitman, who won the GOP nomination for governor, will face former two-term Gov. Jerry Brown, who is 72 and was first elected governor in 1974, the same year Whitman graduated from High School in Cold Spring, New York. Incumbent Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer, who will face Fiorina, is 70. If incumbents are in so much trouble, it's a mystery how these two -- Brown and Boxer -- managed to get on the general election ballot. They should be ripe for the picking, but Republicans have nominated candidates who had to run so far to the right to win the nomination that it may be hard for them to recover, especially in a state with a mobilized Latino voting bloc pissed about the GOP's immigration maneuvers.

Republican are angry; Democrats are nervous. Neither is a campaign strategy. The candidate with the better strategy wins, and the incumbents have won before. That is a storyline.