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Key Primaries a Barometer of Voters’ Frustration

Cruising the struggling rural communities of eastern Arkansas, Earnestine Weaver, the local justice of the peace and longtime Democratic committeewoman, senses a tide building in advance of Tuesday's primary.

"People are saying: 'Let's make a change. Let's get rid of all the people in office now,'" she says.

In state after state, as campaigns ramp up for this year's congressional elections, voter anger threatens to capsize the careers of lawmakers previously considered untouchable. Party affiliation is not the issue.

"It's a bad year to be an incumbent," says Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat.

Primary elections Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky will provide the next test of the electorate's sour mood. In those states, veteran officeholders who have the backing of their party leaders are threatened by upstart candidates who barely registered in the polls a few months ago.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter, embraced by President Obama after Specter switched parties in the face of a tough GOP primary, may not survive his first Democratic one.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's choice to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning may not survive a Republican primary challenge from Rand Paul, the son of ex-presidential candidate Ron Paul.

And in Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln is threatened by a Democratic primary rival who says she's made too many compromises with conservatives on issues such as health care and labor rights.

Another common theme in Tuesday's contests: Candidates who have tried to position themselves to win a fall campaign by attracting independents find themselves in danger of rejection by Republican and Democratic primary voters. To activists on the right and left, deal-making has become a dirty word.

"You can't hardly tell the difference between a Republican and Democrat anymore," complained Fred Friedmann, who attended a "Tea Party" gathering in Louisville last week. "I'm looking for someone who gets away from the establishment.'

Could this be the year of a bipartisan political purge? The casualty list already is growing.

Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, a 17-year Republican veteran, couldn't persuade delegates of his own party this month to put him on the primary election ballot. Last week, Democratic primary voters in West Virginia booted Rep. Alan Mollohan from a seat that had been held by his family for four decades. Mollohan succeeded his father in 1983.

Other senior lawmakers at the height of their political power, such as Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis., have opted to retire in the face of re-election opposition.

Even Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, faces a tough primary challenge. In Florida, Republican conservatives pushed Gov. Charlie Crist out of his party's primary when he decided to run for Senate as an independent.

"Right now, it's a very turbulent environment," says Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Politicians of both parties attribute voters' vindictiveness to anxiety, though they offer different explanations for it.

"It's the deficit," says Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, representing his party's view.

Democrats, such as Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., blame the high unemployment rate.

Whatever the reason, "there is a general frustration out there that can suddenly focus on an incumbent who finds himself or herself on the defensive for any reason," says Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University. "Times are tough, the wars go on, the rich get richer, party control changes but nothing happens that most people can feel."

The result is a year in which all the usual rules seem to have been upended: Incumbency is an anvil, not an asset; fundraising advantages mean little; and the endorsements of popular political figures seem to be backfire.

That's the case Tuesday, where three veteran officeholders with well-funded campaigns and powerful backers are in danger of losing to insurgent candidates:

In Pa., a test for Specter

During a nearly three-decade career in the Senate, Specter has beaten cancer (twice), a brain tumor and countless political opponents. Recent polls, however, suggest he's in a battle he may lose.

Rep. Joe Sestak, Specter's challenger in the Democratic Senate primary, lagged 20 percentage points when Terry Madonna, polling director for Franklin&Marshall College, surveyed Keystone State voters in early March.

When Madonna polled again this month, he found the race dead even.

The shift represents less a Sestak surge than it does a Specter collapse, says Madonna, who believes the five-term Specter is at risk of falling victim to an anti-incumbent tsunami.

"It's 90 percent about Arlen," Madonna says.

Sestak doesn't dispute that assessment. "The overarching issue is trust," he says. "The lack of trust in Washington."

In an anti-incumbent year, there are few bigger targets than Specter, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history.

Elected in 1980 on the same ticket as Ronald Reagan, Specter served most of his career as a Republican with a quirkily independent streak. He campaigned briefly for the presidency in 1996 as a pro-abortion-rights Republican and voted "not proven" on former president Bill Clinton's impeachment, citing Scottish law.

Last year, Specter became a Democrat. That got him out of a GOP primary rematch with Pat Toomey, a fiscal conservative and former congressman who came within 2 percentage points of beating Specter six years ago.

Specter says that wasn't a factor in his decision. He says he "had a clear shot at re-election" as a Republican had he stuck with the party line and opposed the economic stimulus plan.

Instead, Specter says in an interview with USA TODAY, "I cast a principled vote" for the president's plan. "I was concerned about sliding into a 1930s recession," he says.

Specter doesn't deny the threat he's facing.

"I think there is a tremendous objection to incumbents," he says. "What I'm trying to remind people is that I have not been a part of this obstructionism and partisanship that people are fed up with."

President Obama, Vice President Biden and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell all back Specter.

That doesn't impress Clarence Sprout, a retired postal worker from Harrisburg.

"I'm sick and tired of the people in Washington," says Sprout, a self-described life-long Democrat. "I really think this year I'm going to vote for anybody who is new."

On the other hand, Karen Primm of Smithton, in western Pennsylvania, a supporter of the president's health care plan and gay marriage, says Specter's Republican past doesn't bother her.

"I'm not thrilled with this Democrat-Republican stuff," she says. "Most of us aren't one or the other. We're all moderates, somewhere in the middle."

Sestak, a two-term Philadelphia congressman, retired from the Navy as an admiral and once worked for former president Clinton. Yet he is running as a Washington outsider against what he portrays as an attempt by the national party apparatus to foist Specter on Pennsylvania Democrats.

"My party's establishment got off track," says Sestak, accusing party leaders of making a backroom "deal that smacked of the worst of politics" to win Specter's allegiance.

After Specter switched from the Republican to the Democratic party last April, Sestak said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had been trying to recruit him to run against the senator, asked him to give up the race. He declined.

Conversations with Pennsylvania voters last summer convinced him that they were ready to reject the advice of politicians - even politicians they like, Sestak said. This year's stunning upset victory by Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special Senate election "validated" that theory.

"This is about Washington," he says. "The message is 'A pox on both your houses.' "

Another test of the power of incumbency on the Pennsylvania ballot: A special election to fill the congressional seat held for 37 years by Democratic Rep. John Murtha. Democrat Mark Critz, a former aide to Murtha, is running on his former boss' record. Local polls show Republican Tim Burns, running as a political newcomer, in a position to pull off an upset.

A shake-up in Kentucky?

The anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the country isn't limited to incumbents. Just ask Kentucky Republican Trey Grayson.

Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of State, appeared last year to be a shoo-in for the Senate seat being vacated by Bunning. Grayson picked up dozens of early endorsements from Republicans in the Bluegrass State and enjoyed a $500,000 fundraising lead.

Former vice president Dick Cheney, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Kentucky's senior Republican, McConnell, all back Grayson.

But instead of boosting his credibility with voters, Grayson's Washington ties have become ammunition for his opponent, Bowling Green eye surgeon Rand Paul.

Paul, 47, has cast the race as a battle between the nation's "Tea Party" movement and establishment Republicans, and has tried to define Grayson as part of "the Washington machine."

"Something big is happening in America," Paul told about 100 supporters eating fried chicken and steak at a Tea Party gathering last week in southern Louisville. "We need new people in both parties in Washington if we're ever going to fix it."

A poll for the Louisville Courier-Journal this month found Paul, whose father has served 11 terms in the House, with a 16 percentagepoint lead. Both Paul and Grayson have raised $2.7 million for the race, but 77 percent of Paul's money has come from out-of-state donors compared with 18 percent for Grayson, according to CQ MoneyLine.

Paul's message is resonating with plenty of Kentuckians, including Louisville resident Don Knight. After listening to Paul speak at a meet-and-greet in Prospect, Ky., Knight says Grayson is too cozy with entrenched lawmakers.

"Everybody who's following this closely realizes that Trey Grayson is going to be the lapdog of Mitch McConnell," Knight says, "and Mitch McConnell ought to be the next one out of office."

Grayson, 38, acknowledges that widespread voter discontent is shaping the race in Kentucky and elsewhere, but he bristles at the suggestion he's the "insider candidate."

The Harvard-educated Kentucky native has never worked in Washington. On the campaign trail, he has criticized his own party, as well as Democrats and President Obama.

Even so, Grayson makes no apologies for his support from established lawmakers. In an interview, he argued that his alliances will enable him to achieve more results in Congress than Paul's "throw spitballs" war on Washington.

"If you're stuck in traffic, do you want the guy who's just going to honk the horn or the guy who's going to pass" the tie-up and move forward, Grayson asks in an interview. "Rand's approach won't be productive."

Whoever wins will have to switch gears for the November election, which the non-partisan Cook Political Report calls a toss-up.

Polls show Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo in a dead heat with Attorney General Jack Conway for the Democratic nomination.

It's the fall election that Corbin, Ky., accountant Ruth Howard will have in mind when she shows up at the polls Tuesday. After listening to Grayson speak outside City Hall, Howard says she believes Grayson is simply more electable.

"Trey's a little bit more mainstream. . . . Rand's just a little bit more extreme," she says. "And it's very important that we keep this seat."

Ark. senator under fire

After 17 years in Congress - six in the House and 11 in the Senate - Democrat Lincoln seemed to have everything necessary to keep an incumbent entrenched.

She's climbing the rungs in the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, and last year she became chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the first woman and the first Arkansan ever to hold the post.

At the edge of an eastern Arkansas community garden where sweet potato and peas were beginning to sprout on a recent weekend, the senator displayed six poster-size checks for $400,000, symbolizing grant money she had snagged for local conservancy groups and agricultural entrepreneurs.

"I'm proud to be able to be in a place where I can be helpful to Arkansas," Lincoln says.

At home, however, she's facing a mutiny. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter got into the race March 1 against Lincoln, who has the backing of Obama and former president Clinton, still enormously popular in his home state.

Even so, a poll last week showed Halter pulling to within 10 percentage points of Lincoln. And although Lincoln's campaign war chest, amassed over years, far surpasses Halter's, the challenger managed to raise twice as much money as the senator during April.

A third candidate in the race, D.C. Morrison, trails far behind in the polls but could be a factor: If neither Lincoln nor Halter gets more than 51 percent of the vote, they will face each other in a June 22 runoff.

"The momentum is with us," Halter says in an interview.

On a recent trip back to her old congressional district in the Arkansas Delta, Lincoln didn't disguise her sense of urgency. "I need you now more than ever," she told a group of about 25 community leaders gathered for ham and biscuits in ForrestCity. "It's a crazy election year out there."

Even Lincoln loyalists agree she's facing a tough environment. "Our little community has been through a tough time," says Larry Nash, mayor of the nearby town of Wheatley. "Everybody wants change."

In Halter's view, the race boils down to a question of "who's going to fight for the middle class vs. who's going to stand by special interests?"

He hammers Lincoln for her refusal to support "card check," shorthand for legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers, and her role in the health care debate. Lincoln voted for the bill in the end but refused to back the so-called "public option" - including a choice of a government-backed insurance plan among a range of options - favored by some Democrats.

Halter's campaign has the support of some national liberal groups such as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, as well as the AFL-CIO.

Supporters tout Halter's efforts to establish a state lottery in Arkansas, with proceeds providing $5,000-a-year scholarships to Arkansas high school graduates who attend state colleges.

"Bill's with regular people in Arkansas day in and day out," says Tom Keating, a Democratic committeeman and member of the Teamsters union. "Blanche is in Washington."

Lincoln's supporters believe her recent work as an author of the financial reform legislation moving through Congress - particularly a provision designed to push big investment banks out of the derivatives business - will help polish the senator's populist credentials.

Yet Gary Phillips, chairman of the Democratic Party in Mississippi County, worries that Halter supporters "will not vote for our candidate" if theirs does not prevail, damaging Democratic chances in the fall.

"We have our own Tea Party going on in the Democratic Party," Phillips says. "It's going to be a bruising battle."

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