Image: Arlen Specter with his wife Joan
Win Mcnamee  /  Getty Images
Sen. Arlen Specter concedes defeat at a primary night gathering of supporters and staff with his wife Joan Specter on Tuesday in Philadelphia, Pa. Specter, a five-term Senator who switched his political affiliation a year ago, was defeated by Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary.
updated 5/19/2010 7:21:05 AM ET 2010-05-19T11:21:05

Two anti-establishment candidates — one on the left, one on the right — scored major victories in U.S. political primaries — the latest signs of voter anger that has jolted American politics.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a five-term incumbent who switched from Republican to Democrat last year in hopes of keeping his Pennsylvania seat, lost to Congressman Joe Sestak, who defied party leaders in pursuing the nomination. The vote was a defeat for President Barack Obama, who supported Specter.

In Kentucky, Rand Paul, a political novice supported by the conservative tea party movement, won his party's nomination for the Senate, defeating Trey Grayson, a state official. Grayson had been backed by Kentucky's senior senator, Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate.

The results reflect the growing polarization in American society, where politicians in both parties are being pushed away from the center. They also reflect the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment of voters who believe that entrenched politicians have lost touch with the public, bailing out wealthy bankers while middle-class Americans struggle to keep their jobs and their homes.

"I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back," Paul said.

The results add to the uncertainty ahead of the November elections, in which Obama's Democrats are trying to defend their majorities in both chambers of Congress. With the most seats to defend, Democrats seem the most vulnerable to the anti-incumbent sentiment.

But Democrats received an important boost as they won a closely watched special congressional election in Pennsylvania to fill seat of the late Rep. John Murtha. Though the winner, Mark Critz, will serve only the final months of Murtha's term, a defeat would have been discouraging in a district held by Democrats for four decades.

In the fourth major contest on Tuesday, another test of anti-establishment sentiment, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas was the top vote-getter in her primary, but was below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a costly runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. She had been a target of liberals because of her positions on union rights and health care.

Video: Will primaries predict midterm mood? Specter's defeat probably will be seen as the clearest sign of America's fading political center. He quit the Republican Party after recognizing that he had little hope of fending off a primary challenge from Pat Toomey, a more conservative former congressman. Toomey won his party's nomination Tuesday.

Yet Specter also was not liberal enough to win the Democratic nomination, despite Obama's support. Sestak accused Specter of switching parties to save his job and said Specter could not be trusted to support Democratic Party values.

In Kentucky, the Paul victory was the latest sign of the political power of the tea party movement, which believes that government spending and influence should be curbed. It already has helped prevent a senator from Utah, Bob Bennett, from becoming the Republican candidate because he was seen as insufficiently conservative. It also helped propel Republican Marco Rubio to a lead in the pre-primary polls in Florida's Senate race, which prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to quit the party and run as an independent.

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Paul, an eye surgeon and the son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, had the support of leading conservatives, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Palin told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that Paul's victory is a "wake up call for the country."

Beyond the day's primaries, the U.S. political landscape was jarred by two other developments Tuesday.

Republican congressman Mark Souder of Indiana, who won a tough primary two weeks ago, said he will resign from Congress after admitting an extramarital affair with a staff member. Souder is an evangelical Christian who has championed family values and traditional marriage and sexual abstinence for teenagers.

Meanwhile, the favored candidate in the Connecticut Senate race, Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, admitted Tuesday that he had "misspoken" in claiming more than once that he served in U.S. military in Vietnam. Republicans hoped this would increase their chances of winning the seat.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Anti-D.C. message in key primaries

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