Rand Paul, Kelley Paul, Robert Paul, Duncan Paul, William Paul
Ed Reinke  /  AP
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul address supporters at his victory party in Bowling Green, Ky., Tuesday. At left is Paul's son William. At right is his wife Kelley and sons Duncan, top, and Robert.
updated 5/19/2010 8:15:24 PM ET 2010-05-20T00:15:24

The biggest primary night of the season left two parties dazed and confused and struggling Wednesday to figure out their next steps in an increasingly volatile election year. House Republicans tried to explain their costly defeat in a special election in Pennsylvania, a contest they had hoped would launch them toward big gains in November's midterm elections. President Barack Obama failed for a fifth time to push Democratic choices to victory, a troubling sign for the White House.

Despite the White House support, Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff with union-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in Arkansas and is clinging to her political life. Arlen Specter saw his long Senate career end altogether with Joe Sestak's nomination in Pennsylvania.

Tea party activists scored a big victory in Kentucky, rejecting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand-picked GOP nominee — Trey Grayson — for the state's other Senate seat in favor of political upstart Rand Paul.

In several states, voters flocked to self-described outsiders at a time when support for Congress is low, anger at Washington high and backing for Obama divided.

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However, the themes that surfaced in Tuesday's disparate primaries may tell little about the likely outcomes of upcoming primaries in other states, much less how the general election in some five months will play out. More clear is that this is shaping up to be a raucous campaign season, with colliding variables and a host of unknowns.

Pennsylvania takes center stage
While public attention focused on the Senate races, party leaders eyed the Pennsylvania House result.

Video: Voters send message of resentment

Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, predicted a GOP takeover of the House this fall, although he said the loss in Pennsylvania was "evidence of the fact that we have a lot of work to do and we can't get ahead of ourselves."

Countered Tim Kaine, the Democratic Party chairman: "The party's failure to take a seat also shows that while conventional wisdom holds that this cycle will be tough for Democrats, the final chapter on this year's elections is far from written."

A Republican victory for that Pennsylvania House seat would have advanced the party's claims that major gains are certain this fall, and a takeover of the House is possible — a narrative officials had hoped to reinforce this Saturday in a special election to fill out the term of former Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii.

In Hawaii, Republican Charles Djou runs ahead in the polls while two Democrats split a preponderance of their party's vote. Despite efforts at diplomacy, neither former Rep. Ed Case nor Colleen Hanabusa has agreed to withdraw, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently announced it was halting its activity in the race after spending more than $300,000.

‘They're tired of business as usual’
But what does it all mean? It's an unpredictable political environment in which Republicans will seek to take control of Congress this fall and Democrats will try to curtail losses. Some GOP gains are expected because Obama's party is the one in power at a time when the economy continues to sputter and joblessness persists. Those economic issues are voters' top concerns.

"The message clearly is that they're tired of business as usual in Washington, regardless of party. ... The people want new faces and new fresh ideas," Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who rode a wave of voter anger to office in January, said in an interview.

Kaine deflected questions about whether Obama's political influence was waning, saying that after the primaries are over in states "that's when you'll see the president going in." He ignored the fact that over the past seven months Democratic candidates Obama campaigned for lost gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, fell to Brown in Massachusetts, lost the Senate primary in Pennsylvania and ended up in an Arkansas runoff.

Tougher to build coalitions?
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who leads the Senate Democrats' campaign efforts, said of the president: "Hopefully, he can continue to create a greater contrast between the Democratic vision and the Republican one" while also continuing fundraising and campaign appearances.

Lincoln's run-off as well as the defeats of Specter and Grayson also raised questions of whether political parties — the establishment in elections — are losing power and, if so, what that means for coalition building and the influence of outside groups, if not for democracy.

Seeing tea party activists successfully sidestep the will of leaders in Washington, voters could increasingly turn to the Internet to air grievances, mobilize and force change. Certainly, candidates nominated without their party's support owe little or nothing to their party leaders and, thus, it may become tougher to build coalitions to get things done on Capitol Hill.

Recruiting and funding candidates
And big-monied special interest groups might just be emboldened by Halter's success so far to overtake the traditional party roles of recruiting and funding candidates.

Union leaders who nudged Halter into the Arkansas race vowed to carry him to victory in the runoff over Lincoln. Said AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman: "We are certainly ready and able to spend whatever we need to spend on behalf of Halter."

Organized labor has already spent more than $5 million to oust Lincoln, a moderate who angered unions by opposing legislation to make it easier for workers to organize and working to kill a government insurance option in health care legislation that passed Congress.

As Lincoln and Halter duke it out, the Republican nominee, Rep. John Boozman can refill his campaign coffers and plan strategy for the fall in a race the GOP has long targeted.

Less than 24 hours after the primaries, the shape of the fall campaign was quick to form.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans rolled out a new website and video against Sestak, pointing out that the congressman votes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats most of the time and was endorsed by the progressive MoveOn.org. "Just how liberal is Joe Sestak?" the spot asks and answers: "Way too liberal for Pennsylvania."

In Kentucky, Democrats portrayed Paul as out of touch. They released a video that contrasts the state's 10.7 percent unemployment with Paul's calls to eliminate the Education Department and corporate taxes. The video also highlights his opposition to curtailment of Medicare payments to doctors; he's an eye doctor.

"The one payment Paul doesn't want to cut is his own salary," says the video that claims Paul is "against helping Kentuckians" but "for helping himself."

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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