By Sean J. Miller - 05/19/10 04:44 AM EDT
It was a bittersweet night for Democrats as they won a House special election but saw one senator fall and another incumbent go to a runoff.
Meanwhile, Republicans saw their favored Senate candidate lose in Kentucky to a darling of the Tea Party movement.
Most of all, Tuesday's primaries were another sign of the anti-incumbent mood that has swept the nation and has lawmakers worried about their futures.
Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who took down five-term Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), called his victory “a win for the people, over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.”
And, in Kentucky, a victorious Dr. Rand Paul (R) told supporters “we’ve come to take our government back.”
Questions also will be asked of the White House’s leadership.
The Obama administration’s political operation failed to clear the field in Pennsylvania for Specter, whose three-decade Senate career was ended by Sestak — a candidate many in Washington felt can’t win statewide in the general election.
In Arkansas the White House wasn’t able to convince its union allies or progressive groups to back away from supporting Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s (D) challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). After she failed to win a majority in the primary, Lincoln has to campaign through a June 8 runoff while the GOP nominee, Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), readies for the general election.
“After a vicious primary battle, incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s Democrat party bosses in Washington were unable to drag her across the finish line,” John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement. “And it remains to be seen whether those same party bosses would financially support Bill Halter should he ultimately defeat Lincoln for the nomination.”
Halter’s candidacy was backed by Democratic-allied groups such as MoveOn.org and the AFL-CIO, who were angered by Lincoln’s perceived rejection of the Obama administration’s agenda.
His union allies said Tuesday’s result should send a “clear message.”
"Working families all over the state of Arkansas have sent a clear message: They will not stand up for those who fail to stand for them. What Sen. Lincoln learned tonight and what elected leaders all around this country should note is that the days of 'business as usual' are over," SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka vowed to press on and defeat Lincoln in the June 8 runoff.
“From the minute the polls closed tonight, we began our renewed efforts to elect Bill Halter to the Senate in the runoff election,” he said in a statement.
Still, Democrats are optimistic about their chances of holding the House after winning a hard-fought special election for the late Rep. John Murtha’s Pennsylvania House seat. Former Murtha staffer Mark Critz (D) defeated businessman Tim Burns (R) by almost 10 points despite low approval ratings for President Barack Obama in the district.
Republicans had billed the race as a referendum on national Democrats.
"Nancy Pelosi is holding fundraisers for him, Vice President Joe Biden was here and Bill Clinton is coming to the district, so this is extremely important because people know that a vote for Mark Critz is a vote for the Pelosi-Obama agenda,” Burns told Fox News shortly before the vote.
It was a harsh loss for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent close to $1 million supporting Burns’s campaign. Democrats hyped expectations for the GOP’s win in recent days, which will only add salt to the committee’s wounds.
But the Senate primaries in Arkansas and Pennsylvania show there is discontent among voters with the party’s leadership. The Democratic establishment went firmly for Specter in Pennsylvania. Obama helped him raise money, appeared in his TV commercials and lent his voice to a robo-call. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent money on Specter’s behalf in the weeks leading up to the election.
T.J. Rooney, chairman of the state party, campaigned with the senator in the final days, while Gov. Ed Rendell and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) rallied supporters in and around Philadelphia to get out in support of Specter.
In Arkansas, Obama recorded a robo-call for Lincoln and directed Organizing for America to help her get out the vote.
The Republican rank and file sent a similar message of discontent in Kentucky, opting to nominate Paul ahead of the GOP establishment-backed Trey Grayson.
Grayson, the secretary of state, had the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former Vice President Dick Cheney, while Paul was backed by Tea Party groups and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).