Image: Specter
Win McNamee  /  Getty Images
Sen. Arlen Specter concedes defeat at a primary night gathering of supporters and staff with his wife Joan Specter, right, and family members including his granddaughter Perri Specter, left, on Tuesday in Philadelphia.
By AP National Political Writer
updated 5/19/2010 1:46:57 PM ET 2010-05-19T17:46:57

Dealt fresh blows from an angry electorate, Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington on Wednesday studied the defeats of Senate incumbents and hand-picked candidates in hopes of learning lessons to avoid losses in other upcoming primaries if not the fall election.

Any doubt about just how toxic the political environment is for congressional lawmakers and candidates preferred by party leaders disappeared the night before, when voters fired Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, forced Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff in Arkansas and chose tea party darling Rand Paul to be the GOP nominee in Kentucky's Senate race.

The message was clear: It's an anti-Washington, anti-establishment year, with voter frustrations fueled by a still-sluggish economy, unrelenting joblessness, bottom-barrel approval of Congress and lukewarm support of President Barack Obama.

"People just aren't very happy," Ira Robbins, 61, said in Allentown, Pa.

With anyone linked to power, it seems.

Taken together, the outcomes of primaries in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky — following voter rejections of GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan in West Virginia — provided further evidence that voters are in the mood to choose outsiders over insiders.

It's clear that anyone affiliated with Washington or traditional party organizations is at risk, regardless of their political affiliation.

Future implications could be huge. Candidates like Paul and Rep. Joe Sestak, who defeated White House-backed Specter, owe little or nothing to their parties. Coalition building, already a lost art on Capitol Hill, could become tougher if more candidates come to Washington as insurgent free agents. Big-monied special interest groups could recruit and fund candidates, the domain of a strong Democratic and Republican parties.

"It's not healthy for democracy," said GOP consultant Ben Ginsberg, an attorney and a leader in the Republican establishment in Washington. "But it is what it's becoming."

An exception to the anti-establishment trend was the race to fill a vacant House seat in a conservative-leaning Pennsylvania congressional district; voters elected the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha's one-time aide, Mark Critz, over Republican businessman Tim Burns. Oregon also held its primary; there were no surprises.

Perhaps indicating that voters were expressing their angst at the ballot box, turnout appeared to be up in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky from the most recent previous statewide primary elections.

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Video: Voters send message of resentment The tone for the party-nominating season was set on the busiest primary night of the year to date, but it's difficult to say whether this early season trend will hold true during the general election. Much could change between now and November, especially given the uncertainty of economic recovery after the worst recession in generations and an unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent.

Tuesday's primaries came a little less than five months before the midterm elections.

Obama backed incumbents in his party's races, but despite the stakes for his legislative agenda the White House insisted he was not following the results very closely. He had worked to elect both Specter and Lincoln, and the outcomes stoked questions about the scope of his clout. In the past six months, Obama has watched candidates for whom he campaigned in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts lose.

In Pennsylvania, Specter, seeking his sixth term and first as a Democrat, lost to Sestak, who spent three decades in the Navy before entering politics. Having run as an outsider, Sestak told cheering supporters his triumph marked a "win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C."

"This particular race needed new blood," said Denise Lamar, 60. She voted against Specter and said, "It's time for him to retire."

Video: Semi-super Tuesday recap Sestak will face former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey in the fall in what is expected to be a hotly contested race.

In Arkansas, Lincoln, a moderate who was first elected in 1998 and is considered among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats this fall, failed to win the majority of votes. She now faces a runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter — who was backed by unions and progressives — for the Democratic nomination.

The winner of the June 8 runoff will face Republican Rep. John Boozman, who won the Republican nomination; the race is likely to be among the most competitive as Republicans try to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.

Elsewhere, Kentucky Republicans chose Paul — the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose 2008 presidential candidacy sparked legions of followers — as their nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning. Tea party activists lifted Paul to victory over Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who was the favored candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Celebrating his triumph, Paul — a 47-year-old eye surgeon making his first run for office — said, "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."

In the fall, Paul will face Jack Conway, the Kentucky attorney general, winner over Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the Democratic primary.


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

Video: Are voters speaking out against the establishment?

  1. Closed captioning of: Are voters speaking out against the establishment?

    >> pictures we'll move on.

    >> with incumbents across the country shaking in their loafers at this point, we're joined by mark whitaker for a look at lessons to be learned from super senate tuesday. maybe i was thinking we all got to change our titles. you don't want to be associated with washington. it was an ugly night for washington in general.

    >> first of all, we have to be careful about drawing too broad conclusions. primary night in a midterm year is a little bit like watching a tsunami in a bathtub. but to the degree that it was really all about an anti-establishment message, we have to remember that essentially, this is the third cycle where that's been the case. in 2006 , you had voters voting against the republican establishment. in congress. in 2008 . barack obama was the anti-establishment candidate. not only against george bush but against the clinton machine and the clinton legacy. and to the degree that there's a lesson i think for the obama white house in these results it's that maybe they were too quick to become the establishment. obviously to some degree, once they were in power and owned the economy, they had to have that, but in bailing out banks and bringing on so many clinton people i think perhaps they got too quickly establishment associated with being the establishment.

    >> and mark, i think republicans are kind of agreefully pointing to some of these races saying, well, the support of president obama being a democrat, having those cotes didn't amount to much for the likes of somebody like senator arlen specter on the flipside, the white house will tell you he had his own set of problems unique to him. what do you think, if anything, these races say about president obama as we watch this arrival ceremony live at the white house with the mexican president visiting today?

    >> well, i think we've seen this in all of our polls including our own poll recently. which is that the obama phenomenon was really about him. it was less about a sweeping mandate for the democratic agenda. and i think perhaps they overinterpreted the mandate that they had. but look, you know, it's not necessarily all good news for the republicans. there have been a lot of the comparisons between this cycle and 1994 when all those republicans swept back in after the first two years of the clinton administration . but have you 0 remember that newt gingrich who was leading that counter insurgency had a very clear agenda. it's not clear exactly what the republican agenda as opposed to the sort of tea party agenda is right now. it's less about agenda right now and more about a kind of political entropy.

    >> it's staying with the republicans, mitch mcconnell , this is, we already knew harry reid had some political weaknesses because of his own re-election and was going to affect how he would lead the senate but now mitch mcconnell . if you can't run things in your own state and your own party in your own state, there's already been questioning how he handled the financial regulatory reform . we've heard some criticism how he handled health care . he created a political liability for the president but not a legislative victory. the business community may lose confidence in him.

    >> mitch mcconnell has essentially had one strategy and that's just to oppose the obama agenda. and obviously, he lost that gamble on health care . we'll see what happens on financial regulation as you say. you know, he can't even sort of deliver the candidate in his home state. and again, this goes back to this question of, are the republicans really going to be able to reverse whatever the obama tide is if they don't have a clear message and a clear program.

    >> talking about pennsylvania 12, chuck and i were just remarking that that's the district that democrats and white house really hope that will all focus on because they consider it to be a little laboratory and say look, if things are trending republican in these swing districts, that's when it should have gone to the republicans last night.

    >> well, it shows obviously if you have a good candidate who's running on local issues you can still do well as a democrat. but i think it's also a message to progressives within the democratic party who are obviously you know still want to sort of have their way and want that to be the dominant theme in the democratic side that in order for the democrats to hold on to congress and to their majorities, they are going to have to continue to feel conservative candidates and then if those candidates succeed, they've got to govern in a way that brings all the elements of the democratic party together.

    >> yesterday it when it started it had the making ever what could have been a nightmare for democrats because of the story in the "new york times" about their leading candidate for the u.s. senate in connecticut, richard blumenthal . there's another front page story in the times today. some people saying hey, this veterans thing yesterday, it rallied around blumenthal. he's showing he will fight back. front page in the "new york times," "the new york times"" is a huge problem for blumenthal.

    >> look, as a veteran of somebody who you know, has covered these kinds of stories and seen how they unfold and sometimes been the target of those kinds of stories, this one has legs. this is not going away. and you know what, chuck? it's a big problem because he's the attorney general. for the attorney general to be caught not just in a misstatement but fundamentally a kind of essential lie about his own life does not look good, and there are a lot of people who thought in a kind of tactical way he did well in his press conference yesterday but i still think this is a problem.

    >> maybe he may not end up the democratic nominee. mark whitaker , thanks for coming in

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