Many pundits seeking lessons from the 2014 primary elections to apply to still-undecided intraparty contests have become confused as their choice of narrative gets muddled. For many it’s the year of open war between Tea Party groups and “the establishment,” as they seek to make sense of new election outcomes in light of that model.

The idea that Republican incumbents were in trouble gained currency with the defeat of now-former Congressional Majority Leader Eric Cantor to an unknown college professor in Virginia and picked up steam as Mississippi’s long-term Senator Thad Cochran was forced into a runoff, which he has narrowly won.

That Cochran runoff victory threw a wrench into the narrative machine. “What does it mean?” As usual, perhaps it means less than many thought.

It is a human trait to try to understand new events within the framework of existing knowledge and to tell stories to connect events with a perceived common thread. But sometimes the search for a new narrative, especially when the media becomes involved, obscures the reinforcement of old lessons.

It is old hat to observe that Congressional incumbents routinely are re-elected despite negative public attitudes toward the institution of Congress. In 2010, 85% of incumbents running for reelection won their races during the height of the Tea Party movement. Before that, you have to go back to 1992’s 88% to find the last time incumbent reelection was below 90%.

But this year might be different, some analysts predicted, with Congressional approval ratings occasionally seen in the single-digits, and dramatically under water.

Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia throws cold water on the idea that 2014 is the year of endangered incumbents.

So far this year, 273 of 275 House incumbents (99%) and 18 of 18 Senate incumbents (100%) have won renomination. So the anti-incumbent thesis, so prominent after the upending of Cantor two weeks ago, collides with the cold facts.

For those who write about politics for a living, the urge to create a new narrative thread is understandable: weather reports that say tomorrow will be just like today would perhaps be more accurate than our current meteorological system, but make for fewer readers and viewers. Likewise, “more of the same,” is not a formula for stirring up political readers.

So, lesson one is that revolutions in American politics are far less likely than the media might suggest.

Lesson two is about the nature of third party spending.

Earlier this week, a political roundtable show on Georgia Public Broadcasting took up the Cochran runoff win, along with victories for putative “establishment” candidates in Oklahoma and Colorado Senate primaries. In Oklahoma, Congressman James Lankford’s win over T.W. Shannon may say more about the dynamics of third parties engaged in political fights across the nation than about either candidate.

Politico.com reports that in the face of what appeared to be a brewing upset in Mississippi, “conservative groups who endorsed [Shannon] went all in on Chris McDaniel [Cochran’s Mississippi opponent] in the final weeks, assuming the Oklahoma race would head to a runoff.”

In chess, a player will often sacrifice a pawn, of relatively low value, to seek tactical advantage or protect more valuable capital pieces. When the playing field becomes national politics, favored challengers become pawns, who will be sacrificed in pursuit of tactical advantages or material gains.

For that reason, third party spending, while helpful to candidates, is not something they should count on for vital pieces of their campaign plan. Because in politics, like baseball, next weeks brings a new set of contests in a new town.

 

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