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Politics

Voters Sound Antiestablishment Chord

Specter defeat, big Tea Party win and close primary results all point to a turbulent autumn.

Voters in both parties rocked the political establishment last night, giving a thumbs down to traditional politics and putting some wind in the sails of newcomers riding a swell of anti-Washington sentiment.

Neither party can claim an early or overwhelming mandate from last night’s results. Still, much is becoming clear, and the storyline is being set for the fall midterm. The dominant message is that Washington is broken and voters are frustrated about the economy, jobs, industry bailouts, toxic politics and more. Plus, incumbency is more an albatross than the safe haven it used to be.

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In Kentucky, Tea Party-backed candidate Rand Paul’s thumping 60% to 35% win in the GOP Senate primary over the establishment candidate, Trey Grayson, is a black eye for the national Republican party leadership. His overwhelming victory diminishes the clout Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, also of Kentucky, who threw his support and prestige behind Grayson.

Paul, the son of GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is not a sure shot to win in November, but he’ll be the face of a rising Tea Party movement and will be a fundraising magnet easily capable of overshadowing McConnell, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio., and other veteran GOP luminaries. Paul will face Democrat Jack Conway, the state attorney general, who very narrowly defeated Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo last night. It will be one of the hottest races this fall.

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In Pennsylvania, the defeat of five-term Sen. Arlen Specter, D, who changed parties last year after 29 years as a Republican senator, immediately makes lesser-known Joe Sestak, a two-term congressman, the odds-on favorite to win the Senate seat in the fall. Sestak, a former Navy admiral, won the primary 54% to 45%, despite the national and state Democratic party establishment, Gov. Ed Rendell and the Obama White House all backing Specter. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden rather conspicuously avoided late campaigning on behalf of Specter, a sign they saw Specter’s loss coming and are banking on Sestak being a better candidate for the fall.

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Specter’s loss can be blamed on several factors, including his party switch, lack of enthusiasm for him from loyal Democrats, a meager turnout in Specter’s vote-rich Philadelphia base and a smartly run campaign by Sestak, who portrayed Specter as a quintessential entrenched incumbent doing everything to stay in power. Still, Specter’s loss, by any fair measure, was also a shot by voters at establishment party politics. In November, Sestak will face conservative Republican Pat Toomey, who handily won the GOP primary last night. Unclear, for now, is how supportive Specter will be in helping Sestak this fall.

In Arkansas, embattled two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D, barely eked out a 46% to 41% victory last night over Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Lincoln has been put on the defensive in Arkansas Democratic circles for not supporting President Obama enough, particularly on health care. Because neither candidate received at least 50% of the vote, a runoff will be staged on June 8. Figure on it being a toss-up. In any event, the close vote tally in Arkansas further shows the difficulty Lincoln and other incumbents face.

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Much will be divined by both parties in the results of the special House election last night in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, a center-right-leaning, working class area around Johnstown. The seat had long been held by the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha, a powerful Washington dealmaker who proudly steered hundreds of millions of dollars in earmark funding to the district. Republicans were gunning for a special election upset win, funneling nearly $1 million in national party dollars into the race and hoping a win would signal a national movement toward Republicans. But it was not to be. Democrat Mark Critz, a former top aide to Murtha in Washington, beat GOP businessman Tim Burns 53% to 45% and will be sworn into the House later this week.

Critz’s victory means Democrats can breathe a huge sigh of relief. A loss -- or even a very narrow win -- would have caused a sure panic wave in the party and boosted Republican odds of regaining the House of Representatives this fall.

Last night’s results also show the limited coattails of Obama. His endorsement and stumping on behalf of Democrats is proving to be of debatable value.

While every race is unique, it’s becoming clear that Obama has limited ability to swing voters toward party preferred candidates. It was true in the special Senate election in Massachusetts -- the definition of a Democratic stronghold -- won by Republican Scott Brown. It was true in off-year governor races last year in Virginia and New Jersey. And it was true last night in Specter’s loss and Lincoln’s narrow survival.

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