Washington Braces for Primaries

Washington Matters

Washington Braces for Primaries

Voters are mad as hell about a whole lot of things, and we'll see it on Tuesday.

May 18th will be the biggest primary day so far, and it’s sure to send shock waves through Washington, setting the story line for the November elections when all of the House and a third of the Senate are up for grabs.

So nervous are some Washington insiders that they’re starting to call the 2010 election “Nightmare on Capitol Street.” Results in the major primaries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas are bound to confirm an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent and anti-Washington mood. And a special election in Pennsylvania could show just how rough it will be for Democrats, in particular.

Just the fact that so many of Tuesday’s intraparty contests appear close, even for normally safe incumbents, verifies a restless electorate upset with the slow pace of economic recovery, high unemployment, the unpopular bank and auto bailouts, Wall Street bonuses, housing troubles and the toxic partisanship in Washington and on the airwaves.

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Incumbents are already running scared after the defeats earlier this month of two veteran congressional appropriators, three-term GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who was bested by two little-known Tea Party-backed challengers, and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, a 28-year congressional veteran who used his perch on the appropriations panel to steer tens of millions of dollars in earmarks to benefit constituents. The angry voter ax fell on both in stunning defeats.


In the toughest spots on Tuesday:

Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, who switched parties to become a Democrat last year to improve his reelection chances in the Senate, may be looking at the end of a long Washington career. First elected in 1980, Specter, 80, has narrowly survived tough challenges before. But this time may be the most difficult because he can’t count on a loyal base of support among Democrats. Primary challenger Joe Sestak, a retired admiral and two-term congressman, has closed the gap. Specter’s vote against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan for the solicitor general position last year only hurts him now, especially with women. President Obama supports Specter but significantly has no plans to campaign for him this weekend.

In Arkansas, two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) is in a very tight race with lesser known Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who has portrayed Lincoln as too conservative for the state’s Democratic base. She’s been on the defensive for supporting the big financial bank bailouts and for her role in blocking a more far-reaching health care law. Strong labor support and union voter mobilization are boosting Halter’s primary odds in the homestretch. High turnout could spell trouble for Lincoln.

In Kentucky, it’s the Republican establishment that’s at risk in a Senate primary. Tea Party favorite Rand Paul (R) may beat Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state, in the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning. Tea Party types will hail a Paul victory as a sign of the diverse movement’s growing political force. A loss by Grayson will be especially tough for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the other senator from Kentucky, who has put his prestige behind Grayson.


Two special House elections are worth watching. A lot of attention is focused on the Johnstown area of western Pennsylvania where a special election is being held to pick a successor to the late Rep. John Murtha (D), who, over nearly 36 years in Congress, became synonymous with Washington dealmaking and for steering earmark funding back home. Polls show the candidates neck and neck in a district long held by Murtha, but one dominated by old-fashioned Reagan Democrats. The district went for John Kerry in 2004 but for John McCain in 2008.

In an odd-twist, Republicans are likely to win a special election for an open House seat in Hawaii’s 1st District in Oahu four days later because two Democrats are competing and splitting the party’s vote. That would be a short-term GOP win, though, with Democrats having strong odds of winning back the seat in the regular election in November, assuming they unite behind one candidate for that contest.

Still, if the GOP picks up both House seats and if Senate party favorites fall, expect already high anxiety levels to spike among Democratic incumbents.