(Some) Good News for the Democrats

Stephanie Burt · Elections in America

The United States had elections this month too. Most of Tuesday's ballots were primaries; one was a by-election, for the House seat long held by the Democrat John Murtha, who died three months ago. Murtha became famous in 2005 when he called for US troops to get out of Iraq. His antiwar position was a surprise: he was never especially liberal, and his district was anything but. Pennyslvania's 12th Congressional district is on the border with West Virginia – it's coal and steel country, except where it's rural, and its median residents are socially conservative, white people who support the Democrats (if they do) thanks to their unions. PA-12 was the only one of America's 435 Congressional districts to choose John Kerry in 2004 but John McCain in 2008; the by-election seemed to present low-hanging fruit for Republicans, and polls had it too close to call.

It wasn't close. Mark Critz, Murtha's former chief of staff, easily defeated his Republican opponent, Tim Burns, a pharmacy entrepreneur and political novice (who will run again in November). Like many Pennsylvania Catholic Democrats, Critz opposes abortion rights; he also says he opposed the healthcare reform bill. But his win still made Democratic observers happy. Democratic majorities have always included – indeed, relied on – voters who are a lot more conservative than the national party. They used to be Southerners. Now they're blue-collar union types, or farmers, from the Rust Belt and the Midwest: Critz's win seems to suggest that there are still enough of them to go around.

Newspapers summarised the elections (the PA-12 choice and the primaries) as anti-incumbent events, or as victories for the Tea Party. You could also call them all wins for the Democrats. At least some districts not entirely fond of the president – as Critz showed – will still support his party in Congress if the right candidates run. In Kentucky's open-seat Senate race, Jack Conway, a moderate Democrat, will face the Tea Party favourite Rand Paul, the son of the libertarian congressman Ron Paul: the younger Paul's extreme views (he has mixed feelings about the 1964 Civil Rights Act) are already national news. And in an anti-Washington November, two unpopular Democrats – the Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, a career politician who switched parties to save his job, and the Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln, a business-friendly ‘centrist’ – probably won't be on the ballot at all: Specter lost his primary, and Lincoln got forced into a run-off, which she will probably lose. In their place, the Democrats will have more skilful campaigners, who might hold those Senate seats – especially if the Tea Party controls the other side.

But the week wasn't all good news for the Democrats: Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, was heavily favoured for the Senate in November until it was revealed that he lied, or might have lied, or perhaps failed to correct other people's mistakes, about his military record. Blumenthal joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1970, staying till 1976. A video clip from 2008 has him saying he ‘served in Vietnam’, though (like most reservists) he never went there. The initial report in the New York Times suggested that he represented himself as a Vietnam vet again and again – about the worst lie a politician of his generation could tell. But a longer clip of the same speech has Blumenthal getting it right (‘served... during the Vietnam era’), and it's not clear (yet) if he ever meant to mislead.

Even the scent of deception might hurt Blumenthal if his Republican opponent is the politically nimble former congressman Rob Simmons, who earned Bronze Stars in Vietnam: after Blumenthal went on the defensive at a press conference on Tuesday, surrounding himself with real Marines, Simmons tweeted: ‘Blumenthal should not be holding a press conference at a VFW post. He is not a veteran of a foreign war.’ Ouch. But polls suggest Simmons won't make it through the primary. Instead, Blumenthal is likely to face another political novice with anti-establishment sentiment on her side: Linda McMahon, the very wealthy former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, whose campaign gave the story to the Times.