The Banality of Primary Upsets

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 16 2012 2:12 PM

The Banality of Primary Upsets

Sen. Richard Lugar's landslide defeat this month was a minor humiliation for a whole lot of Republicans. Among them: Sen. Rob Portman. The freshman and Bush administration vet, who has droned his way to the top of veepstakes charts, had sent money to Lugar via his PAC. Yesterday, at one of the Peterson Foundation panels that the press actually paid attention to, Portman gave his spin on the loss.

A lot of it had to do with the fact that he didn’t have a residency in his home state. The media has picked up some of the other aspects of the race but missed the fact that there was a legitimate concern when he couldn’t vote in his own election.

This is... well, yes, spin, but not untrue. When I shadowed Mourdock a few months ago, I was struck by how much time his campaign spent pushing the story that Lugar didn't really live in Indiana anymore. Eventually, the local election board in Lugar's Indianapolis ruled the Mourdockians were right. Lugar survived, sort of, and got to stay in the race, but his poll tumble can be tracked alongside the residence story. It prevented him from regaining an initiative.

Look now to Nebraska, home of Debra Fischer and a stunning, Palin-fueled upset. (Palin endorsed Fischer late last week, after Fischer had asked for the help.) Palin helped, absolutely. But Alex Burns obtained solid data on how much the three candidates were able to spend on TV ads.

Jon Bruning -- $1.2 million
Don Stenberg -- $1.3 million (candidate and outside groups)
Deb Fischer -- $0.3 million

This didn't quite track as a Tea Party upset. It looks more like what happened to Rick Santorum in Iowa, or Creigh Deeds in Virginia (2009) -- a third candidate sneaking past the two front-runners beating the hell out of each other.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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