Tuesday's primaries could provide early answers for election year

By Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; A01

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.

That 2010 could be tough for incumbents is hardly a surprise, given the mood of the voters. But some strategists say it is possible to read too much into the defeats of Bennett and Mollohan.

In any normal year, Mollohan's defeat might have been written off to the baggage he carried from past ethics problems, although his vote for health-care reform was an important factor in the outcome. Bennett's defeat was the work of a few thousand party activists, not an expression of voter sentiment across Utah.

As one measure of comparison, four House members were defeated in primary contests in 2008, two in 2006 and two in 2004. Only one senator lost a primary during that time -- Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) in 2006 -- and he was reelected as an independent that fall.

To the extent that voters are looking to penalize all incumbents, Democrats would face the far harder hit this fall as the party in power in Congress and the White House. "Being a GOP incumbent this fall is a much better proposition than it is for a Democrat," said Republican strategist Terry Nelson.

The more powerful anger is aimed broadly at Washington. Obama's policies have sparked a significant backlash on the right, and many independent voters who backed him in his 2008 campaign have defected since he took office.

"The results across the board show the public with no trust in Washington, D.C., and a feeling Washington, D.C., has no ability to do anything well," said Matthew Dowd, a former campaign adviser to George W. Bush and now an independent analyst. "The country thinks D.C. is totally dysfunctional and is sick and tired of it."

In more placid times, voters say they hate Congress but like their representatives. "The question is whether that wall of separation has been breached," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "To the extent that incumbents lose in primaries, it helps suggest that those walls have been broken down."

Here is a closer look at the major races on Tuesday:

-- In Pennsylvania, Sestak was being recruited to run against Specter before the incumbent's stunning party switch. In the aftermath, Sestak refused to back down even when the White House and Pennsylvania Democrats made clear that they would be behind Specter.

For much of the next year, Specter held a wide lead based on superior name identification across the state. But with less than a month remaining in the primary, Sestak unleashed a torrent of ads that first detailed his résumé as a Naval commander and then attacked Specter.

The most effective commercial featured images of Specter being praised by former president George W. Bush and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. But the most devastating images were of Specter explaining, "My change in party will enable me to be reelected."

Polling shows that Sestak has closed a double-digit gap with Specter in a few short weeks. The winner of the Democratic primary will face former representative Pat Toomey in the general election.

In the southwest corner of the state, a separate political drama with significant national import is playing out in the kind of culturally conservative district that Republicans hope to win this fall.

Murtha staffer Mark Critz (D) and businessman Tim Burns (R) are facing off in a race in which the two national parties have combined to spend nearly $2 million in independent expenditures. Outside organizations, particularly conservative groups, are also funding ads in the district.

-- In Arkansas and Kentucky, there are dueling battles over the right direction to take the respective parties.

The Arkansas race pitting Lincoln and Halter has devolved into a proxy war between the incumbent and organized labor.

Even Lincoln's staunchest opponents acknowledge that she will probably finish first in Tuesday's primary, which also includes a little-known conservative Democrat. The question is whether she can reach the 50 percent plateau needed to avoid a June 8 runoff with Halter.

In Kentucky, the "tea party" movement looks poised to score its latest victory over the party establishment as ophthalmologist Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), has held a steady lead over Grayson.

Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) have endorsed Paul, who has utilized the national fundraising network built by his father during the 2008 presidential race.

In the Democratic Senate primary, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo began the race with a lead, but state Attorney General Jack Conway has recently made up ground.

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