WASHINGTON — 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.
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