Incumbents performed remarkably well in Orlando's April 3 municipal election -- a possible harbinger for the Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin and the November presidential race? (Photo by Dave Raith).
Last month, Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan attended the ribbon cutting ceremony for the 21st annual Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival, where she issued a proclamation from the city recognizing the festival and its contributions to the city’s cultural and artistic scene.
Sheehan, who had just come up for re-election a month earlier against challenger Aretha Olivarez, also decided to use the event to speak to her constituents.
“Thank you,” she said, “for my 77 percent victory.”
Call it what it is: a landslide.
Whenever news reports come out about the state or national economy, the focus is almost entirely negative. Florida’s unemployment rate is 8.7 percent, higher than the national average of 8.2 percent. Millions in the state have been jobless for a year or longer. Home prices have yet to stabilize and the foreclosure mess continues for the fourth straight year.
And yet, when Orlando – a city hard hit by the crash of the housing market — held its municipal elections, Sheehan’s landslide victory was the norm, not the exception. Mayor Buddy Dyer fended off three challengers and got 58 percent of the vote. If that’s not a solid endorsement of the status quo, I don’t know what is.
Whenever the so-called political analysts look at the presidential race, they speculate that voters, frustrated with the sluggish pace of the recovery from the Great Recession, will punish incumbents for failing to turn things around faster, with President Obama at the top of the list.
After all, the past three election cycles have not been about ratifying the job performance of incumbents, but throwing the bums out. Democrats reclaimed a majority in the U.S. House and Senate in the 2006 mid-term elections, just two years after President George W. Bush secured a second term. Then in 2008, Democrats captured the White House and increased their margins in Congress following eight years of Republican rule.
In 2010, voters went in the other direction and provided landslide victories to Republicans, particularly here in the South.
And now? Is it possible that voters are no longer eager to ditch as many incumbents as possible, and that more Americans – and more residents of Central Florida as well – see a positive economic light at the end of the tunnel?
That was definitely the case in Orlando when the city elections were held – not one incumbent got bounced.
And if the pundits are correct and Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, survives the recall election he faces tonight over his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, that could simply prove the same thing that Orlando residents demonstrated: that the anti-incumbent fervor of the last few election cycles has run its course.
If Walker wins, as expected, conservatives will say it’s a strong endorsement of the governor’s efforts to reform state government by, among other things, pushing for pension reforms for public employees. They have every right to claim that – a win is a win is a win.
On the other hand, they might be missing the bigger picture – that maybe it was a dumb idea of the unions to launch a recall election in the first place, attempting to toss out a governor who has only been in office for a year and a half, and who hasn’t gotten bogged down in scandal, private or public, or proven to be corrupt or incompetent.
Liberals and union members can disagree with his views and policies, but a recall this early into his term, minus any hint of public malfeasance, may have been bad timing. Why would the 52 percent that voted Walker into office in November 2010 bounce him this quickly?
It’s not that incumbents haven’t lost this year, but curiously the majority that have lost got blounced in primaries. Interestingly, it appears to have been for largely ideological reasons – that they failed to “please the base,” as former Bush advisor Karl Rove might say.
There’s evidence that ideologically “pure” left-wing and right-wing activists can defeat a long-term incumbent if they believe that senator or congressman has strayed from the values of the base.
Last month, veteran Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican first elected in 1976, was ousted in his primary by a Tea Party-backed candidate, Richard Mourdock, who argued that the incumbent was insufficiently conservative.
In Texas, veteran Congressman Silvestre Reyes lost the Democratic primary in his El Paso district to liberal challenger Beto O’Rourke, who claimed the incumbent was too cozy with big business. O’Rouke cited Reyes’ ties to a company that got awarded a $200 million contract after the firm gave Reyes contributions and hired his children.
What those defeats suggest isn’t raging anti-incumbent fever, but a high level of interest and energy among the most ideologically committed partisan voters — who seem guaranteed to turn out in force come November, and are losing patience with incumbents who don’t toe the party line.
That trend suggests the likelihood of a blowout in November by either President Obama or his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, isn’t very likely. It doesn’t seem possible that Democrats will be too discouraged to bother voting, as was the case in 2010, or that unmotivated Republicans won’t get to the polls, either, as in 2008.
And it just may be that after three hissy fit elections in a row, incumbency is getting cool again, as voters finally assume the worst of the economic funk is behind them.
Just ask Patty Sheehan. With a near-unanimous victory in her pocket — and during tough economic times to boot — she truly did have something to be thankful for when she cut that Fringe Festival ribbon.

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