On Tuesday in North Carolina, two Democratic House incumbents fared surprisingly poorly against left-wing primary challengers. From Public Policy Polling (emphasis mine):
The biggest story out of Tuesday's election results in North Carolina was not anything related to the US Senate race, but the surprisingly weak performances by Larry Kissell and Heath Shuler in their primaries. Kissell received 63% and Shuler only 62% against candidates who did not have the resources to mount really serious campaigns.
The poor performances by Kissell and Shuler and where they did poorly- the most liberal parts of their districts- are a clear indication that there is significant unhappiness with them on the left. The question now is how that unhappiness will manifest itself this fall.
The candidates Kissell and Shuler faced, Nancy Shakir and Alixa Wilson, had raised a combined total of zero dollars as of March 31. Not even a single dollar.
These results suggest that there is a larger pool Democrats who are disgruntled at the incumbents in their own party than previously imagined. In fact, this pool of disgruntled Democrats might well be larger than the much more publicized tea party.
Some evidence to support this thesis comes from Senate primaries. Of the five Senate incumbents facing serious threats to their renomination this year, three are Democrats. Further, not only are there more Democratic incumbents in danger, but they poll worse than their Republican counterparts. On the Democratic side, Arlen Specter only leads Joe Sestak by 5%; Michael Bennet only leads Andrew Romanoff by 6%, and Blanche Lincoln only leads Bill Halter by 7.5%. By way of comparison, John McCain leads his primary by 16.5%, and Bob Bennett leads his by 23% (Bennet is in danger in the activist-dominated caucus, however).
The surprising strength of the North Carolina primary challengers who didn't even run real campaigns, combined with the very real danger facing the three Democratic Senators listed above, suggests that other Democratic incumbents are in more danger against primary challengers than most election watchers have thought. Marcy Winograd's challenge against Jane Harman in CA-36 is a glaring example. Winograd received 38% of the vote in 2006, and has built a real campaign (raising nearly a quarter of a million). if the base of anti-inccumbent, disgruntled, mainly left-wing Democrats has grown in her district as well, then Jane Harman may well be toast. Check out Marcy's website, and get involved with her campaign.
May 18th will do a long way to determining just how strong the disgruntled, anti-incumbent, progressive constituency really is in the Democratic Party in 2010. This is not just because the headlining primary challenges by Bill Halter and Joe Sestak take place on that day, but also because of the results in North Carolina will have a chance to replicate themselves in Pennsylvania's 17th congressional district. Like Shuler and Kissell, incumbent Tim Holden is a Democrat who voted against health care reform, and some other major Democratic legislative priorities. Like Shuler and Kissell, he occupies a lean-red district and faces a progressive primary challenger, Shelia Dow Ford, who had raised exactly zero dollars as of March 31.
If Halter and Sestak both win, and the results of Shuler and Kissell's districts are repeated by Dow Ford receiving over 35% of the vote without being able to run anything resembling a full-fledged campaign, then it will be pretty clear that progressives have more opportunities in primary challenges than tea partiers. It would be ironic indeed that the year when progressives finally surpassed conservatives in their ability to run successful, or at least threatening, primary challenges was the electoral cycle when the tea party emerged. The right-wing has long dominated the left in their ability to keep members of Congress in line through real and threatened primary challenges. It took the rise of the tea party, which was supposed to threaten so many incumbents in primaries, for conservatives to fall off that perch.