The voters’ revolt against Washington

Primary voters in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas sent a powerful anti-incumbent message to Washington.

What happened

Primary voters sent a powerful anti-incumbent message to Washington this week, rejecting establishment candidates from both parties in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, while forcing two-term Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff in Arkansas. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak handily defeated five-term Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched parties in 2009 in hopes of keeping his office. Specter, 80, was strongly backed by the state Democratic Party, unions, and the White House, but lost 64 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. In Kentucky’s GOP senate primary, voters chose libertarian and self-avowed Tea Party candidate Rand Paul over Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who’d been backed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch Mc­Connell. “The electorate is pissed,” said Mike Shea, an advisor to McConnell. Paul’s decisive victory was fueled by voter anger over the huge federal deficit, health-care reform, and the expansion of government, and sets up a test of Tea Party strength in November, when he will face Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. “We have come to take our government back,” Paul said.

In the Arkansas Democratic primary, Sen. Blanche Lincoln—facing anger from both the Left and the Right—was unable to capture more than 50 percent of the vote in a primary against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, triggering a runoff election between the same two candidates in three weeks. “People in Washington are getting mighty nervous about what is happening in Arkansas,” Halter said. In a bright spot for Democrats, Mark Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns in a hotly contested House special election to succeed deceased Rep. John Murtha. Critz, a pro-life, conservative Democrat, won a district that narrowly favored John McCain in 2008.

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What the editorials said

Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator, now follows in the footsteps of other Senate colleagues who’ve recently been “tossed aside” or retired, said The Philadelphia Inquirer. Specter switched from the GOP to the Democrats in hopes of avoiding just that fate. But he “couldn’t overcome the anti-incumbent mood of the country.”

Specter’s defeat was “an act of political hygiene,” said The Wall Street Journal. He’s a political opportunist who has flip-flopped on many key issues, and he won’t be missed. But the Democrats’ victory in the 12th congressional district is an ominous sign for Republicans’ hopes of recapturing the House in November. Critz, the victorious Democrat, “ran against the Democratic agenda, saying he would have voted against ObamaCare.” But if a Republican can’t win a conservative district where Obama’s approval rating is “well under 40 percent,” something is wrong with the GOP political operation.

What the columnists said

In Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas, “voters rejected the instructions of their own party’s leaders,” said Michael Scherer in Still, the onus for November rests on Democrats, who control Congress and the White House. The wave of change that elected Obama in 2008 just might “undo his governing majorities in 2010.”

That looks increasingly likely, said John McCormack in The special election in Pennsylvania signifies little. There are dozens of Democratic House seats more vulnerable than that one, and the pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who won is much more conservative than most Democratic incumbents, who are rightly running scared for re-election.

Actually, Democrats should be “pleased” with Tuesday’s results, said John Judis in The New Republic Online. The center is still where elections are won, yet the GOP is now being taken over by candidates like “Rand Paul, a flamboyant radical and favorite of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.” If Democrats can make November a referendum on the Tea Party instead of on Washington, “they may avoid the disaster that political prognosticators have been crowing about for months.” That’s possible, said E.J. Dionne in But Tuesday’s message “cannot be summarized as neatly” as either political party would like. “True, it was not a great night for incumbents.” But it also was “hardly a clear sign of what will happen between Republicans and Democrats in November.” We can agree, for instance, that Rand Paul’s 24-point victory was a “rebuke.” The question is: “for whom exactly?”

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