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The Center Wins. Again.

Lessons both parties should take away from Tuesday's big primaries.

True partisans don’t like to hear this—Texas Democrat Jim Hightower used to say, “There is nothing in the middle of the road, but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”—but American elections are most often battles for the political center. Whoever can marginalize their opponent by identifying them with the far left or right is likely to win.

By that measure, the Democrats can be pleased with the results of the May 18 elections. They won the only head-to-head contest with a Republican—a congressional election in Pennsylvania to fill the seat of the late John Murtha—by capturing the center in a fairly conservative district. And in Kentucky, the Republicans nominated Rand Paul, a flamboyant radical and favorite of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, to run for Senate in the fall. Indeed, if the Democrats can make the fall elections a referendum on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, they may avoid the disaster that political prognosticators have been crowing about for months.

In Northwest Pennsylvania’s Twelfth District, the Democrats ran a colorless former Murtha staffer, Mark Critz, against Tim Burns, a glib Republican who championed the Tea Party and tried to make the election a referendum on Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Critz ran to Burns’s left, but to the right of the national party. He was pro-life and pro-gun. He said he would have opposed the health care bill because its anti-abortion provisions were not strong enough, but unlike Burns, he did not favor repealing it.

Critz failed to inspire voters—a Public Policy poll on the eve of the election showed his unfavorables exceeding his favorables—but in the end the election wasn’t about him. It was about whether the radical Burns would continue, or attempt to undo, Murtha’s legacy of bringing federal spending to the district. The voters were clearly worried that he would not.

The election was a close replay of what happened in upstate New York last November, when a little known Democrat, Bill Owens, bested Tea Party favorite Doug Hoffman for the seat held by Republican John McHugh. Voters in these fairly conservative districts didn’t so much vote for the Democrat as vote against his radical right-wing opponent. If the choice is between blandness and rabid conservatism, Democrats can expect to win most races, even in a district like Pennsylvania’s Twelfth that narrowly backed John McCain in 2008.

Which brings us to Kentucky. Rand Paul, who won his closed primary battle by a large margin Tuesday night over Tray Grayson, the Republican establishment candidate, has advocated abolishing the Federal Reserve and the Department of Education. These were exactly the kinds of positions that doomed the Republicans after they captured the Congress in November 1994. Now, Paul might win in the fall against Democrat Jack Conway (this is Kentucky, after all), and even a Tea Party Republican is likely to win in Utah (where the longstanding Republican incumbent Bob Bennett was just ousted in a party convention), but these victories for the Republican right push the national party into the arms of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin—and that’s bad news for them.

The Democrats, of course, have their own left wing to worry about, but it does not pose the same kinds of problems. There have been several primary challenges to incumbent Democrats who voted against the health care reform bill, but these challengers haven’t commanded the same kind of following. In Pennsylvania’s Seventeenth District, Sheila Dow-Ford got 33 percent against Representative Tim Holden. Last month, challengers to Democratic congressmen Larry Kissel and Heath Shuler got 37 percent and 38 percent, respectively. West Virginia Congressman Alan Mohollan did lose in the primary, but to an opponent who was slightly more conservative, and who benefited primarily from Mohollan’s reputation for corruption.

In Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak defeated incumbent Arlen Specter, but in the pre-election Muhlenberg College poll, Specter actually did better among liberal voters than Sestak. In the final tally, I suspect that Sestak, who was still virtually unknown several weeks before the election, captured liberal as well as moderate voters on the strength of his devastating ad tying Specter to George W. Bush. His was a victory for youth, competence, and effectiveness rather than for a more leftward direction. In Arkansas, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who has forced incumbent Blanche Lincoln into a runoff, was backed by labor unions, largely because of Lincoln’s refusal to endorse the Employee Free Choice Act, but Halter has not made it an issue between him and Lincoln. By election eve, there was precious little space between their positions, and the primary, like the one in Pennsylvania, appeared to hinge on the lack of enthusiasm for the incumbent.

In all these races—from North Carolina to Arkansas to Pennsylvania—the “left” did not consist of flaming radicals, but of people who backed Obama’s agenda and were largely critical of Democrats who had failed to do so. If the White House can mount an effective national campaign, it should be able to mobilize frustrated liberal voters come November, especially if it is made obvious that the control of Congress is at stake. But it’s still not clear if the White House will be able to do that, or if it even has the will to try.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan and the Republicans faced a worse economy than even Obama and the Democrats do today—unemployment rose steadily in 1982 until it reached 10.4 percent in November—but they were able to craft a national political strategy that allowed them to minimize their loses in the November House and Senate elections. Reagan’s advisers adopted a theme of “staying the course” that became the Republican mantra in the fall. The flip side of staying the course was going back to the stagflation and malaise of the Carter years.

Are the Obama people crafting a similar theme for 2010—one that can capture what is positive about the administration’s achievements and stigmatize the Republicans as the party of the Tea Party crazies? I don’t yet see any evidence of it. In a video prepared for the DNC last month, Obama laid out a strategy for the coming election that consisted of rounding up the usual suspects and getting them to the polls. “It will be up to each of you,” he told the DNC, “to make sure that the young people, African Americans, Latinos and women, who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again.”

Obama’s speech was later echoed in a strategy memo drawn up by pollster Stan Greenberg and Democracy Corps. It called on the Democrats to keep down their losses by getting the “Rising American Electorate” of “unmarried women, young people and people of color” to the polls in November. Demography is not strategy. What Obama’s speech and the Democracy Corps memo lack is a thematic approach to the November election that can capture the political center by identifying the Republicans with the radical right. If the Obama administration comes up with that kind of approach, the Democrats can minimize their losses, just as Reagan did in 1982. But if they don’t, then 2010 may look disturbingly like 1994, when the Democrats were caught unawares at the polls.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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