Primaries show anti-incumbent mood, but Dems say it could have been worse

Tuesday’s primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania confirmed what lawmakers feared: The incumbency advantage at the ballot box doesn’t necessarily apply this year.

But Democrats, who came away with a critical win in a special election, said they were heartened by the fact that voter disenchantment cuts both ways.

“People are upset, and it shows no party bounds,” said Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles SchumerSenate faces critical vote on Puerto Rico Juan Williams: GOP sounds the sirens over Trump Gun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA MORE (D-N.Y.), architect of the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2006 and the 60-seat majority of 2009.

Rand PaulRand PaulTrump flexes new digital muscle Republicans question Trump's trip to Scotland Hate TV customer service? So does your senator MORE, the Tea Party-backed insurgent who won the Senate Republican primary in Kentucky, demonstrated that the GOP establishment is just as vulnerable to voter anger.

And Democrat Mark Critz’s special-election victory over Republican Tim Burns in Pennsylvania’s 12th district provided a valuable lesson, Democrats said.

“For Democrats, the lesson is very simple: I think it is that people want us to focus on their problems,” Schumer told The Hill. “I don’t believe they want no government; I think they want a government that is lean but focuses on what is bothering them and helps fix it.”

Republicans countered that voters were expressing displeasure with Democrats’ massive spending spree since taking control of the White House.

“We got a fired-up country, fired up about taxes, spending, debt and Washington takeovers,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderBipartisan gun measure survives test vote Overnight Healthcare: GOP plan marks new phase in ObamaCare fight Stoddard: The great Trump rebellion MORE (Tenn.). “It’s a message, above all other things, to get the debt under control.”

Democrats touted their relatively high turnout in all three states in an attempt to dispel the notion that the party base isn’t fired up. But in Pennsylvania, some say there’s a caveat: It is likely Critz benefited from the intense interest in the primary race between Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D).

Critz stated his opposition to healthcare reform and cap-and-trade legislation and campaigned extensively on a jobs message. While Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 registration advantage in the district, it was the only one in the country that voted for Sen. John KerryJohn KerryBudowsky: Save Europe, revote Brexit White House: We were prepared for Brexit vote After Brexit vote, is anything left of Britain? MORE (D-Mass.) for president in 2004 and backed Sen. John McCainJohn McCainThe Trail 2016: 11 hours, 800 pages, 0 changed minds McChrystal backs McCain's Pentagon reform proposal McCain: 'It's up to every delegate to make up their own minds' MORE (R-Ariz.) for the White House in 2008.

House Republican Leader John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility If 'bipartisanship' is now a dirty word, how about a rebranding? MORE (R-Ohio) acknowledged the loss was a setback and said the party needs to raise more money and get organized before November.

“It’s pretty clear that we have to organize and we’ve got to continue working on our agenda project. ... We’ve got to continue to raise resources,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility If 'bipartisanship' is now a dirty word, how about a rebranding? MORE told reporters.

It was the seventh special election Republicans have lost since President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaTrump on NAFTA: Renegotiate or withdraw Nigel Farage: Trump better for UK than Obama Obama lauds abortion decision from Supreme Court MORE took office.

Republicans had tried to make the race about Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who are unpopular in the district, but Critz, a former Murtha staffer, won with a comfortable margin, 53 percent to 45.

Boehner said his party has had a tough time winning these special elections given “the financial disadvantage we have now,” noting that “we’ve got to do better.”

Alexander called the special election in Pennsylvania a “disappointment.” “We’ll have to learn from that,” he said.

Still, Democrats could hardly celebrate outright.

The primary defeat of 30-year incumbent Specter and the failure of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the Arkansas primary — forcing her into a June 8 runoff — shows that voters won’t blindly pull the lever for incumbents.

“There is an anti-incumbent sense,” said Sen. Bob CaseyBob CaseyThe Hill's 12:30 Report Dems launch new effort on guns after Orlando carnage New bill would ban gun sales to those convicted of hate crimes MORE Jr. (D-Pa.), who campaigned with Critz. “That’s natural whenever the economy is stressed like it is — I think you’re going to see that.”

Republicans argue the anti-incumbent sentiment is more damaging to Democrats because they control more seats in Congress.

But Democrats say they have learned an important lesson that will guide them over the next five and a half months.

“I think what most people are telling us, whether we’re an incumbent or an incumbent who happens to be running, is that we have to focus intensively on job creation and job preservation,” said Casey.

Democrats pledged a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy after they lost control of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts.

But they have not passed much in the way of jobs legislation. Obama signed a modest $18 billion jobs bill into law in March.

But Democrats have redoubled their efforts to frame a landmark healthcare reform law as an economy-boosting accomplishment and have focused on the job-creating potential of energy and climate change legislation

Schumer said the Democratic jobs message is having “some” impact on voters and “we’ve got to do more of it.”

Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 7:50 p.m.