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Alan Mollohan and wife, Barbara (AP/Photo by Dale Sparks)

Incumbents beware

Politics | A Democrat from West Virginia and a Republican from Utah have already felt the wrath of angry voters

WASHINGTON-First it hit a three term Republican from Utah. Now it has taken down a 14-term Democrat from West Virginia.

From coast to coast congressional incumbents have been put on notice this week: This year your reelection is not guaranteed . . . and that includes primary contests within your own party.

On Tuesday night, Alan Mollohan, who has spent 28 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, handily lost in his bid for a 29th and 30th year in Washington. Mollohan won't even get a chance to have his name on the general election ballot in November. His ouster came in West Virginia's Democratic primary where state Sen. Mike Oliverio won by a hefty 12-point margin.

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Mollohan's loss, the first so far this year by a House incumbent, is continuing proof that the anti-establishment fervor is driving people to the polls. Mollohan is a classic case of the political establishment-the son of a former congressman, a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and the benefactor of easy reelection campaigns over the past dozen election cycles. He enjoyed a campaign war chest more than twice the size of his competitor, but he still could not pay his way past voter unrest.

This anti-incumbent fever is not the exclusive worry of the Democrats.

Mollohan's early retirement came less than a week after the ouster of Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, who has spent the past 18 years representing Utah. Bennett finished a distant third at his party's state convention last weekend. The surprising finish, cheered by Utah's Tea Party crowd, means that Bennett won't be on Utah's Republican primary ballot, which includes only the top two candidates coming out of the convention.

"It's a little like going to your own funeral while you're alive," Bennett told reporters this week while back in Washington, where he will finish out his term. He then went on to explain why Utah voters decided not to send him back to Capitol Hill for 2011: "They're angry and they're angry at Washington. And I'm in Washington."

Indeed polls show that about half of all Americans want to give their own congressman the pink slip. Oliverio, in winning the West Virginia Democratic primary, used a simple blueprint that tapped into this voter frustration.

"We all know Congress is broken," Oliverio said on a campaign video. "The lobbyists and special interests seem to run the place, and too many members of Congress have been corrupted by inside deals. I think we need to clean house."

This message clearly resonated with voters-a fact that must be causing a large measure of anxiety among dozens of incumbent lawmakers.

"These are not lifetime jobs or entitlements," Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

These intra-party civil wars continue next week. High-profile primaries take place Tuesday in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.

The next victim could be Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania. Some polls show that the one-time Republican-turned-Democrat is trailing challenger Joe Sestak by two percentage points. This slide has occurred despite-or maybe because of-the fact that Specter enjoys the backing of the Democratic Party establishment from the White House to the Pennsylvania governor's office.

The anti-incumbent wave may be cresting at the wrong time for Specter, who just a month ago held a 21-point lead in the polls. Specter now faces the one thing he switched parties last year to avoid-a primary defeat.

And the fact that he is having a hard time remembering which party he now belongs to probably isn't helping any: At then end of a recent speech Specter thanked the Allegheny County Republicans for their endorsement.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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