A tale of two establishments

A TALE OF TWO ESTABLISHMENTS…. The DNC issued an item this morning declaring Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday’s “biggest loser.” The Dems’ case seems pretty compelling.

“After the candidate he handpicked to replace the sitting Senator he forced out was crushed in his own backyard, it’s fair to say that Mitch McConnell was election night’s biggest loser. If the loss weren’t bad enough on its own, it may also impact McConnell’s leadership position. Going into last night, several commentators saw the Kentucky Republican primary as proxy fight between the McConnell-backed Grayson and DeMint backed-Paul. A fight that McConnell lost, and that not only weakens his leverage in Washington and in Kentucky, but deepens the schism between the far-right and extreme right of the Republican Party.”

It’s worth noting the obvious question here: if McConnell looks awful, doesn’t the Democratic establishment look just as bad? After all, if Rand Paul’s success embarrassed McConnell (and it did), shouldn’t the results in Arkansas and Pennsylvania be equally problematic for Democratic leaders?

There may be something to this — defeats for establishment-backed candidates are defeats for establishment-backed candidates — but I think the nuances and context matter. In fact, there are key differences to explain why Mitch McConnell and his cohorts this morning are feeling quite a bit worse than the White House and the DNC.

Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln, to be sure, enjoyed their party’s backing. But to an extent, it was obligatory — they were incumbent lawmakers, who necessarily had to receive the Democratic establishment’s support or the entire party system starts to deteriorate.

With McConnell, it was a different animal entirely. This was an open Senate primary — there was no incumbent — in a reliably “red” state, which just so happens to be the home state of the Republican Party’s most powerful elected official. The party establishment recruited a strong candidate, who was eventually formally endorsed by McConnell himself, among other GOP leaders, all of whom could have remained neutral.

Their guy was then trounced by 24 points at the hands of a bizarre right-wing ophthalmologist who’d never sought public office, and whose worldview isn’t even close to the American mainstream.

To draw a meaningful parallel, we’d have to see, for example, an open Senate Democratic primary in Illinois, where President Obama and Dem leaders rallied to support one candidate, who proceeded to lose in a landslide. That, of course, didn’t happen.

This, when combined with the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th and some related down-ballot setbacks, made last night much worse for the Republican establishment than their Democratic counterparts.