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Dutch Cleanser, and other election prizes

Sorting out the mosaic of a big election night

To cope with all the copious political news, let's tally up the prizes.

TV Ad of the Year (so far): Joe Sestak's 30-second demolition of Arlen Specter, which arguably triggered the upstart challenger's surge to a decisive victory in the Pennsylvania Democratic senatorial primary. Attack ads are effective only when they tap into prevailing voter sentiments. In this case, Pennsylvania Democrats merely needed to be reminded of why they were already wary of party-switching Specter. Not only did the ad depict Specter acknowledging his own opportunism, it also featured a clip of Specter being praised by a Republican president (George W. Bush) whose mere screen presence still nauseates most Democrats. Was the Sestak ad rough and simplistic? Absolutely. But, as Specter himself has known all too well, politics ain't beanbag - as evidenced by his own TV ad, which unsuccessfully sought to smear Sestak's 30-year career in the U.S. Navy. Fittingly, in his concession speech last night, Specter thanked his media strategist - a longtime Republican.

Most Worthless Myth: Can we finally put to rest the canard about the supposedly mighty Democratic labor-establishment turnout machine? In recent days, many in the press were convinced that Gov. Ed Rendell would drag Specter across the finish line by summoning forth an army of compliant city voters who would simply heed the instructions of their local party committeemen. It sounded like something out of The Last Hurrah, the classic '50s novel about an urban party machine. Yesterday morning I ran into a reporter from NBC, and when I suggested that Sestak might win, he quickly responded, "Yeah, but what about the city machine?" Oh please. The Democrat "city machine," such as it is, can't command an overwhelming turnout for an underwhelming candidate - notably, a guy who supported McCain-Palin just 18 months ago. Specter was widely deemed to be impervious to defeat, just like boss mayor Frank Skeffington in Hurrah. Yet near the end of the book, the vaunted machine couldn't save the old warhorse: "He had ridden into the election a confident the twinkling of an eye, he had been knocked out of office, repudiated overwhelmingly, subjected to humiliation he had never thought possible."

Jab of the Night: Sestak, during his victory speech, hailed the results as "a win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C." The man does not do subtlety. What he was really saying: "The Obama White House and the Senate Democratic strategists who at first courted me for this race, then sought to force me out when Specter big-footed me, are now invited to eat my dust." The thing is, Sestak did them all a favor; he's the stronger general-election candidate. Pitted this autumn against Republican Pat Toomey, he won't have any of Specter's incumbency baggage. And, compared to Specter, he'll stoke more passion within the Democratic base.

Drug of the Week: Dutch Cleanser. Appearing yesterday on MSNBC, Specter told Andrea Mitchell, "When you talk about Sestak being more vigorous, you must be smoking Dutch Cleanser." Wrong move. Did he really think he'd help his own cause by reminding voters that he was born back in the Great Depression, when Dutch Cleanser (trademarked in 1906) was a popular product? I also suspect that, in all the ensuing decades, people in search of a high have found far more pleasurable things to smoke than Dutch Cleanser.

"Family Values" Fraud of the Week: Indiana congressman Mark "I am an evangelical Christian" Souder didn't quite succeed yesterday in burying his big news by announcing it on a busy election day. Nice try; there's always room in the news cycle for yet another right-wing married moralist who practices the reverse of what he preaches to others. Souder, who heretofore has voiced concerns about "the cultural and moral direction of this country," confessed to shacking up with a staffer, and he plans to quit his seat at week's end. The most hilarious aspect of this episode, of course, is that last November he and his on-the-payroll paramour taped a video in which he bragged to constituents about his commitment to abstinence-only sex education. He said yesterday that he was compelled to resign only because of "the poisonous environment of Washington." Gee. Even the most shameless hypocrites are trying to run against Washington this year.

Incumbent of the Year: John Murtha. Granted, the guy is dead, but his legacy lives on among the loyal denizens of Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district. A special House election was held in that working-class district last night, and with Democrat Murtha finally gone, the Republicans saw a major pickup opportunity that would allow them to spin a win as a harbinger of a House takeover in November. The district is culturally conservative, and voters there favored John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008. So the Republicans poured major resources into the race, and sought to nationalize the race by painting Democratic candidate Mark Critz as a puppet of Obama and Nancy Pelosi. They readied themselves for a great night, but...oops! Critz cruised to an eight-point win. Why? Because Critz ran a local race, stressing his longtime stint as a district-based staffer for the beloved Murtha. In this race, at least, incumbency was an asset. These economically downtrodden people like federal pork, they like earmarks, and they want Critz to keep it coming. Nevertheless, undaunted by the facts on the ground, Republican national chairman Michael Steele insisted last night that "this race should serve notice to Democratic officeholders everywhere that no seat is safe." Say what?

Most Embarrassed Republican: Mitch McConnell, literally by a landslide. The Senate minority leader, and senior senator from Kentucky, was slapped upside the head and every which way by the grassroots conservatives of his own state. The candidate he actively backed for the '10 GOP Senate nomination was shellacked last night by tea-party favorite Rand Paul, the son of libertarian Ron Paul. This result is arguably the best evidence that the GOP is being pulled even further to the right; Rand Paul favors abolishing the Federal Reserve and the Department of Education - the same stances that purist conservatives espoused, to the party's detriment, during the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, here is Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate naysayers who oppose Obama at every turn - and yet the conservatives in Kentucky apparently don't think he's conservative enough, so they take the opportunity to whack him as a member of the establishment. As one tea-partier told CNN yesterday, "It's time to blow up the (Republican) party. We have to be less like Democrats." Given how McConnell has sought to thwart the Senate Democrats at every turn, I was not aware that he needed to be less like the Democrats. But that's just me. No doubt he'll move toward the tea partiers with all deliberate speed; if we see him on the Washington Mall toting a sign depicting Obama with Hitler facial hair, we'll know his conversion was complete.

The Mouth That Roared Award: Ed Rendell. Remember when Rendell was chairman of the Democratic National Committee back in December 2000, and publicly called for Al Gore to concede his presidential candidacy even before Gore himself saw fit to make his own announcement? The lame-duck Pennsylvania governor was practicing his own brand of candor again yesterday, declaring on MSNBC that Joe Sestak would be a "weaker candidate" this fall than Arlen Specter, that Sestak won't be able to deliver federal goodies for Philadelphia the way that Specter has. Fortunately for Sestak, most grassroots Democratic voters probably could care less what Rendell has to say. This year, the mood is bottom up, not top down. How did Bob Dylan put it? "Don't follow leaders, watch the parkin' meters."