WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter lost his bid for a sixth term Tuesday night, a party-switching veteran sent down to defeat by voters rejecting experience and clamoring for change. Political novice Rand Paul rode support from tea party activists to a rout in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary.
In another gauge of anti-establishment sentiment, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas led in her bid for nomination to a third term, but was below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a costly runoff.
A fourth race with national implications played out in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Democrat Mark Critz led Republican Tim Burns in a contest to fill out the final few months in the term of the late Rep. John Murtha. Each political party invested nearly $1 million in that contest and said the race to succeed the longtime Democratic lawmaker was something of a bellwether for the fall.
Taken together, the busiest night so far of the primary season was indisputably unkind to the political establishments of both parties. But any attempt to read into the results a probable trend for the fall campaign was hazardous — particularly as long as Democrats held to the seat Murtha long made his own.
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Two-term Rep. Joe Sestak was winning 53 percent of the vote, to 47 percent for Specter, and his victory spelled the end of the political line for the state's most durable politician of the past generation.
Sestak's campaign calling card was a television commercial that showed former President George W. Bush saying he could count on Specter, then a Republican, and then had Specter saying he had switched parties so he could win re-election. Once unleashed, it coincided with a steady decline in Specter's early lead in the polls.
Former Rep. Pat Toomey won the Republican nomination and will run against Sestak in the fall in what is likely to be one of the marquee races in the battle for control of the Senate.
Paul's victory was certain to add Kentucky to that list.
Tea party message
"I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back," he said, a 47-year-old eye surgeon making his first run for office.
But the same energy that helped Paul to victory presented problems to be handled carefully by the Republicans in the run-up to November, when control of both houses of Congress will be at stake.
Paul has said he might not support his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for a new term as party leader. And no sooner had Tuesday's results been posted than Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative warrior, suggested McConnell step aside.
The far-flung races took place a little less than five months before the midterm elections. President Obama backed incumbents in his party's races, but despite the stakes for his legislative agenda the White House insisted he was not following the results very closely.
Whatever the fate of the parties, public opinion polls — and the defeat of two veteran lawmakers in earlier contests — already had turned the campaign into a year of living dangerously for incumbents.
High unemployment, an economy just now emerging from the worst recession in generations and Congress' decision to bail out Wall Street giants in 2008 all added to voters' unease, polls said. In a survey released shortly before the polls closed, ABC said voter expectations for the economy had turned optimistic for the first time in six years. At that, only 33 percent of those polled said so in the network's polling, compared with 29 percent saying the opposite.
In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln's vote hovered close to the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.
Lt. Gov. Bill Halter was running second.
In Oregon, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden faced little opposition for nomination to a third full term.
In Kentucky, Paul had 59 percent of the vote with returns counted from 85 percent of the precincts, compared to 36 percent for Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who had been recruited to the race by McConnell.
Grayson had the support of McConnell as well as other establishment figures. But Paul countered with endorsements — and the political energy that flowed along with them — from tea party activists, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a conservative eager to push his party rightward in advance of the broader fall campaign.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Palin called Paul's victory a "wake-up call for the country."
The race marked the third time that tea party activists, a collection of disparate groups without a central political structure, have placed their stamp on Republican races.