Tuesday's primaries could provide early answers for election year

By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

An angry electorate, which already has delivered a series of shocks to the political system, will render a fresh verdict on Washington, incumbency and both party establishments in a slate of high-stakes contests Tuesday that are shaping up to form one of the most important voting days of the year.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) could be the next incumbent to fall, but by late Tuesday night, everyone from President Obama to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could feel the sting of voter anger that has shaped the election climate and that could produce a dramatic upheaval in Congress by November.

Everyone has a different definition of the anger: anti-incumbent; anti-Obama; anti-establishment; anti-Washington. But the expressions of displeasure are everywhere. Some voters think Washington is spending too much and is infringing on their rights. Others say Washington is not doing enough -- to penalize bankers or to oversee the cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico as oil gushes from a broken well.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart said anyone searching for meaning from Tuesday's races need only look to grievances that have been building for months. "How many times do we need to tell the same story, which is that voters are looking for something that is not in Washington right now," he said.

In the past seven months, the discontent has taken many forms. Republicans have picked up the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey and, in a seismic shock, the Senate seat in Massachusetts long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy. Last weekend, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) was defeated at a party convention; a few days later, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) lost his primary.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said the contests this week -- dubbed the Super Tuesday of 2010 -- must be seen through this prism: "They will be another measure of the depth of anger at Washington and the current state of the country."

The marquee race is the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania where Specter, who switched parties in 2009, is trailing Rep. Joe Sestak. Elected five times as a Republican, Specter defected to the Democrats because he feared he might lose his bid for re-nomination in the Republican primary. Now he could lose as a Democrat, although he enjoys the support of Obama and the Democratic establishment.

A second Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, is also fighting for survival, against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

Whoever wins the Democratic nominations in those states will face stiff competition in the fall.

Republicans have their own intraparty warfare to contend with on Tuesday. Kentucky has become a laboratory for measuring the relative powers of the "tea party" movement vs. the GOP establishment in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.). There, upstart Rand Paul is seeking the nomination against Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who enjoys the support of McConnell, the state's preeminent Republican.

Also, a special House election in western Pennsylvania to fill the vacancy created by the death of Rep. John P. Murtha (D) could provide clues to the prospects for Republicans to capture control of the House in November.

In addition, Oregon is holding primaries Tuesday.

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