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Party Wings Claim Victories

If your party had wings, where would they take you?

Probably to the bank.

Because in Tuesday’s special elections, third-party interest groups put their money where their politics were — and won. A smothering of political groups representing the far wings of each of their respective parties spent millions in the Maryland primaries to elect their chosen candidates and oust two longtime incumbents.

On the left, EMILY’s List, the Service Employees International Union and the League of Conservation Voters supported nonprofit executive Donna Edwards over the more conservative eight-term Rep. Albert Wynn in the Democratic primary in the 4th district.

For the Republicans, the Club for Growth aided state Sen. Andy Harris in his campaign to the right of nine-term Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the 1st district primary.

The two upsets might lead a voter to ask: Are the wings of each party taking over? Or perhaps, is it still safe for candidates to pump up their own bipartisan spirit?

Kevin Igoe, a Republican consultant who has worked with both Harris and Gilchrest, recommended asking Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) for an answer. Lieberman lost his primary in his 2006 re-election because many Democrats thought he was too centrist on the Iraq War, but won the general election.

What’s more, Igoe adds, Congressional districts are being redrawn every ten years to ensure partisan safety — and that only encourages more partisan pols.

“I think you can also make the argument that as we go through the redistricting process the last couple of decades, we have drawn more and more districts that are very partisan,” Igoe said.

Or, as Republicans might hope, Tuesday’s election could be a sign that voters are looking everywhere for change. National Republicans have shopped the message this cycle that an anti-incumbency wave will carry their party back to majorities in both chambers.

“The Maryland elections proved what we have been saying all along, which is that this is going to be a change election,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain. “The Democrat-led Congress’ approval rating is hovering around a record low and voters have expressed their willingness to exercise all of their options, regardless of party.”

Some on Capitol Hill argue that the unique circumstances of each election — an early primary that garnered lots of attention, heavy spending by outside groups and two moderate Members — don’t qualify as a pattern for the rest of the 2008 election cycle.

In Maryland’s 4th district, “this was an isolated incident in a district where a campaign has been raging for two and a half years,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Doug Thornell said, referring to Edwards’ failed 2006 primary against Wynn. But the Gilchrest race is another matter, he said.

“The party that is really veering to the right is the Republican Party,” Thornell said. “Moderates are being squeezed out; there’s really no place for them. Just look at all the Members who are retiring. Many of them are moderates.”

But Tuesday’s results showed that change could mean incumbent casualties in both parties. Though the result was two winners who represent the wings of their respective parties, the districts are expected to elect Harris and Edwards as their next Members of Congress.

Although it’s difficult to determine just how much outside groups from the relative wings of the parties influenced the end result, there’s no doubt that those groups were willing to spend top dollar on their respective champions.

Since Feb. 1, the SEIU spent more than $600,000 in independent expenditures in the 4th district. League of Conservation Voters spent about $30,000, and EMILY’s List put up about $110,000 in that same time period.

The Club for Growth and its affiliates put in about $740,000 in independent expenditures for the 1st district race; the group helped bundle an additional $435,000 for Harris.

However, Gilchrest and Wynn weren’t stuck in the middle alone. Both candidates had backing from their own more moderate groups. The Republican Main Street Partnership, directed by former Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), endorsed Gilchrest.

Though the group’s PAC spent $50,000 in independent expenditures against Harris in the primary, Bass said his group plans to endorse Harris in the general election.

He said that while outside organizations had an impact, he didn’t think the wing groups were a decisive factor in Tuesday’s election.

“It’s just part of the electoral process and this district decided they wanted someone different from Wayne after nine terms in Congress,” Bass said.

Bass said this primary was reminiscent of the 2006 GOP contest in Michigan’s 7th district, in which the Club for Growth-backed Rep. Tim Walberg (R) defeated the more moderate then-Rep. Joe Schwarz. “It’s a fact of life in 2008 that outside interest groups are going to be part of elections,” Bass added.

But for once, the outside groups don’t appear to be taking credit for themselves.

“Don’t dismiss [Edwards] win as being attributable purely to these groups that came in and supported her,” said EMILY’s List spokeswoman Ramona Oliver. “She, without institutional support, without resources, without name ID, without more than two staff people, won more than 46 percent of the vote last cycle.”

The same goes for the Club for Growth, whose spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik noted that others have unsuccessfully challenged Gilchrest in the past. “Harris is a great candidate,” she said. “He had a great record. He did a great job of fundraising. … Gilchrest was out of step with Republicans overall and with Republicans in his district.”

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