It wasn't so much anti-incumbent but anti-establishment.
That's the message that came out of the results on Tuesday, where voters sent a message to the party establishment — both Democratic and Republican — that expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.
The big news came in the Democratic contest for the Senate in Pennsylvania, where five-term incumbent Arlen Specter — who quit the GOP last year because he was not going to survive the primary — wound up losing anyway, despite the backing of President Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and assorted party luminaries. Specter, 80, was never able to convince his new party that he was one of them. Much of the credit for that goes to a savvy media effort by his opponent, two-term Rep. Joe Sestak, who ran ads reminding Democrats that six years ago Specter was warmly endorsed by another president, George W. Bush, and that he spent years voting for Republican Supreme Court justices. Those Democrats with longer memories still harbored anger over the way Specter questioned Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas court confirmation hearings back in 1991.
Sestak received 54 percent of the vote to Specter's 46 percent, ending Specter's long career in politics. Specter, in conceding defeat, pledged to support Sestak in the general election.
Former Rep. Pat Toomey, who came within an eyelash of defeating Specter in the GOP primary in 2004, will be the Republican nominee in November.
If the Democratic Party establishment took it on the chin in the Keystone State, Republicans got the same message in Kentucky. There, local powerhouse Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, muscled out two-term Sen. Jim Bunning (R) from a re-election bid and helped install Secretary of State Trey Grayson as his would-be successor. But GOP voters weren't buying, and instead gave first-time candidate and ophthamologist Rand Paul a smashing victory, telling McConnell and party leaders that the old way of doing things was no longer acceptable. Even though Grayson was not the incumbent, he bore the brunt of the anti-establishment anger. Paul, the son of Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, utilized his father's sizable presence on the Web to make him financially competitive with Grayson.
The Republican primary may have been one-sided, but that was hardly the case among the Democrats. By the narrowest of margins, state Attorney General Jack Conway edged out Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo for his party's nomination. Six years ago, Mongiardo came close to defeating Bunning.
The results were less definitive in Arkansas, but what happened there can't be comforting to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a two-term Democrat whose avowed centrism — in a state that gave Obama just 39 percent — didn't go over well in the primary. She managed 45 percent of the vote, to 43 percent for Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. And because neither candidate received a majority — a third candidate, conservative businessman D.C. Morrison, pulled in about 13 percent — Lincoln and Halter continue their battle for three more weeks, in a June 8 primary runoff.
Halter was the beneficiary of anger towards Lincoln by national netroots organizations like MoveOn.org and labor unions, such as the SEIU and the AFL-CIO, who were frustrated with what they saw as the incumbent's failure to vote with her party on some key issues; her opposition to the public option in the health-care bill was only one of their objections.
While progressives were railing against Lincoln by calling her a DINO — a Democrat In Name Only — Republicans were blasting her as someone too liberal for Arkansas. Rep. John Boozman (R) topped an eight-candidate field with 53 percent, enough to avoid a runoff. He will be able to conserve his funds as the Democrats spend the next three weeks beating each other up.
The only race where a Democrat took on a Republican came in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District, in the southwestern part of the state, the district held 36 years by John Murtha (D) until his death back in February. The district is majority Democratic but socially conservative, and Republicans eyed the seat as the perfect locale to make it a bellwether for November. Their candidate, businessman Tim Burns, railed against Democratic rule in Washington, attempting to tie Democrat Mark Critz with Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, neither of whom are especially popular in the 12th. For his part, Critz, a longtime Murtha aide, arguing that voters cared more about what was happening in Washington, Pa., than in Washington, D.C.
Some Republicans are saying that one of the reasons they lost is that they were at a numerical disadvantage because the Democratic Senate primary brought out a huge number of Democrats. They insist that the results will be different in November, when the same two candidates run again. But others will argue that this was the kind of seat the GOP needed to win if it was going to make huge gains in November, and there will be a lot of recrimination over why they failed.
Critz's victory, along with that of Paul in Kentucky, Sestak's ouster of Specter in Pennsylvania and the uncertainty in Arkansas, made it difficult to arrive at what it all exactly "means." For all the talk of an anti-incumbency mood out there, the fact is that in the 11 states to hold primaries thus far in 2010, only one sitting House member, Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia, and one sitting senator, Specter, were booted out of office by voters. Another senator, Republican Robert Bennett of Utah, was denied the right to run in this year's primary by delegates at his party's state convention who felt he was not sufficiently conservative.
But there is some sort of narrative developing. One is that the Tea Party movement — or whatever you want to call what's going on with conservatives in the GOP — is alive and well. Their rallying behind Rand Paul in Kentucky is only the latest victory for them, following the decision by centrist Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to leave the GOP and become an independent, as well as the defeat of Bennett in Utah. A key figure to watch in all of this is Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who early on backed conservative Marco Rubio over Crist in the Sunshine State, supported another candidate in Indiana who finished a strong second to establishment choice Dan Coats in the Senate primary, and who signed up for Paul in Kentucky despite McConnell's cheerleading for Grayson. DeMint is one of those true-blue conservatives who would rather have a smaller, but more ideologically pure, GOP than a big tent.
It's hard to make the case that Specter's defeat in Pennsylvania is a sign Democrats want to move the party further to the left. Thirty years in office, mostly as a Republican, made it tough for him to sell himself to his new party. Ultimately, it was really about Arlen Specter. And voters apparently had had enough.
But Lincoln's centrism is certainly the reason why she was forced into a runoff in Arkansas, and progressives and the unions are no doubt rejoicing over that result today. That jubilation may be short-lived, especially if the Republicans win the seat in November ... which they may very well do.
The messages that greeted the respective party establishments on Tuesday night followed a day of other political news that brought more headaches to the two parties. In Indiana, Rep. Mark Souder (R), a strong religious conservative, announced he would resign his congressional seat, effective Friday, because of an affair he was having with one of his staffers. And in Connecticut, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D), the frontrunner for the Senate seat being vacated by Chris Dodd (D), was trying to fend off accusations that he lied about his military service.
In other primary results, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) was renominated in Oregon over minor opposition and will face law professor Jim Huffman (R) in November. In the state's gubernatorial contest, former Gov. John Kitzhaber won the Democratic nomination in a field that included ex-Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. Kitzhaber, one of five former governors seeking a return to his old office this year, squares off against former NBA star Chris Dudley in the general election. The incumbent governor, Ted Kulongoski, is leaving because of term limits.
In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest, where Gov. Rendell is also term-limited, state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) will face Democrat Dan Onorato, the chief executive of Allegheny County.
The race for governor in Arkansas will pit incumbent Democrat Mike Beebe and GOP nominee Jim Keet, a former state senator.