Back in February, we tried to sniff out the first whiffs of a larger election-year narrative we suspected the national press corps might be cooking up for the midterm congressional elections.
The picture, unsurprisingly, was pretty muddled back then, but if recent history was any guide, it seemed a safe bet that the press would eventually find some convenient hook or angle upon which it could hang the complicated business of electoral politics. But with the primaries having just ended and the election several scant weeks away, instead of a single, overarching theme around which political reporters can structure their coverage — Kerry is weak, Gore is a liar, Bush is a regular Joe — things seem to be more complicated this year, and reporters are still casting about, trying to find a storyline that sticks.
The bellwether race by which others are being judged — and which helpfully encompasses many of the tendencies of the election season in general — is the Senate race in Rhode Island, where moderate incumbent Lincoln Chafee eked out a win over conservative challenger Steve Laffey in the Republican primary. Chafee now faces Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election on Nov. 7.
Chafee, of course, is no friend to the White House, having voted against the president’s tax cuts, against the Iraq war and plenty of other administration initiatives. By today’s standards, that’s enough to earn him the “centrist” label, and his victory, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Elizabeth Mehren and Janet Hook, “may signal that there is still a place for centrists in an era of intensely polarized politics. While both parties have been drawn increasingly to political extremes dictated by their base supporters, there is an undercurrent this year of voter weariness with partisan combat.”
But apparently Mehren and Hook’s colleague at the Times, Ron Brownstein, doesn’t agree. On Thursday he noted that “centrists struggled in several of Tuesday’s contests. Candidates identified with their party’s ideological vanguard won a closely watched Republican House primary in Arizona and a Democratic House primary in New Hampshire …” He quotes Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz as saying, “Despite Chafee’s success … the trend toward increasing polarization continues … That doesn’t mean moderates can’t survive — but it’s difficult.”
So which is it? According to the Boston Globe’s Rick Klein, possibly neither. He filed a piece Thursday that outlined how some party-backed candidates have gone down in flames, but that plenty of grassroots-backed candidates have met a similar fate, despite massive amounts of cash being thrown around by both sides.
You get the idea.
Another point of contention among political reporters is the effectiveness of the vaunted Republican “get out the vote” apparatus. A good example of this is, again, the Chafee race. On Thursday, the Washington Post’s Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza attributed Chafee’s victory to the Republican machine, tying it to the past two national elections, when “Republicans outperformed Democrats in bringing their backers to the polls … Chafee’s performance — combined with reports of late-starting organization and internal bickering on the Democratic side — suggest that the Republican advantage on turnout may remain intact even as many other trends are favoring the opposition.”
But don’t count the Wall Street Journal’s Jeanne Cummings as convinced. She wrote yesterday that “Tuesday’s back-to-back clashes between the Republican Party machine and its base in Rhode Island as well as in Arizona could diminish turnout among conservative voters in November. Turnout by that voting bloc carried the president in 2000 and 2004.”
These, of course, are only a couple of examples. There are plenty more, and from the look of the coverage so far, it seems that the story about the story of this year’s midterm elections is that no one seems to know exactly what’s going on — though don’t expect a political reporter to ever admit as much.