So does all this mean that the “rise of the activists” narrative is off-base in Arkansas but the “anti-incumbent fervor” narrative applies? Well, maybe; for some voters, Lincoln does seem to have worn out her welcome. But it would be just as plausible to argue that a GOP-friendly environment in Arkansas—unsurprising, given long-run trends in the South and the historical record of the president’s party losing ground in the midterms—is at least as big a part of what’s going on here. Whoever wins the Democratic run-off, after all, will be a heavy underdog to the very establishment Republican in the general election. (As for the limits of the “anti-incumbent” storyline more generally, consider this point from James Joyner: “most incumbents who run this year will get re-elected. The difference between an ‘anti-incumbent wave’ and a normal cycle is a re-election rate of 85% rather than 95%.”)
More broadly, though, the point is not so much that the press should be slotting this week’s elections into the “right” narrative as that we should be very wary of slotting them into any national narrative. The increasing influence of activists and the current anger at Washington are real, but they interact with other factors—trends in partisanship, the constellation of candidates in a given race, the arbitrary rules governing local primaries, etc., etc.—in ways that are variable and unpredictable, and that may not add up to anything like a coherent message, especially in the handful of races that happen to be held on one given day of the year.
Figuring out what it all “means” takes time, hard work, and knowledge of different contexts, and sometimes is simply beyond our capacity. Good reporting about the votes is reporting that attempts to tell readers, in as much detail as possible, what happened and why it’s interesting—and is honest about the limits of our ability, at the moment, to do much more than that.