WASHINGTON — With the electorate's intense anger reverberating across the country, this is all but certain: It's an anti-Washington, anti-establishment year. And candidates with ties to either better beware.
Any doubt about just how toxic the political environment is for congressional incumbents and candidates hand-picked by national Republican and Democratic leaders disappeared late Tuesday, when voters fired Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, forced Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a run-off in Arkansas and chose tea party darling Rand Paul to be the GOP nominee in Kentucky's Senate race.
"People just aren't very happy," Ira Robbins, 61, said in Allentown, Pa.
With anyone linked to power, it seems.
Taken together, the outcomes of primaries in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky – following voter rejections of GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan in West Virginia – provided further evidence that voters are in the mood to choose outsiders over insiders.
Future implications could be huge. Candidates like Paul and Rep. Joe Sestak, who defeated White House-backed Specter, owe little or nothing to their parties. Coalition building, already a lost art in Capitol Hill, could become tougher if more candidates come to Washington as insurgent free agents. Big-monied special interest groups could recruit and fund candidates, the domain of a strong Democratic and Republican parties.
"It's not healthy for democracy," said GOP consultant Ben Ginsberg, an attorney and leader of the Republican establishment in Washington. "But it is what it's becoming."
An exception to the anti-establishment trend was the race to fill a vacant House seat in a conservative-leaning Pennsylvania congressional district; voters elected the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha's one-time aide, Mark Critz, over Republican businessman Tim Burns. Oregon also held its primary; there were no surprises.
Perhaps indicating that voters were expressing their frustrations at the ballot box, turnout appeared to be up in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky from the most recent previous statewide primary elections.
The tone for the party-nominating season was set on the busiest primary night of the year and as more contests loomed large, particularly among Republicans. But it's difficult to say whether this early season trend will hold true during the general election; much could change between now and November, especially given the uncertainty of economic recovery after the worst recession in generations and an unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent.
Tuesday's primaries came a little less than five months before the midterm elections. President Barack Obama backed incumbents in his party's races, but despite the stakes for his legislative agenda the White House insisted he was not following the results very closely. He had worked to elect both Specter and Lincoln, and the outcomes stoked questions about the scope of his clout. In the past six months, Obama has watched candidates for whom he campaigned in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts lose.
In Pennsylvania, Specter, seeking his sixth term and first as a Democrat, lost to two-term Rep. Joe Sestak, who spent three decades in the Navy before entering politics. Having run as an outsider, Sestak told cheering supporters his triumph marked a "win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C."
"This particular race needed new blood," said Denise Lamar, 60. She voted against Specter and said, "It's time for him to retire."
Sestak will face former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey in the fall in what expected to be a hotly contested race.
In Arkansas, Lincoln, a moderate who was first elected in 1998 and is considered among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats this fall, failed to win the majority of votes. She now faces a run-off against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter – who was backed by unions and progressives – for the Democratic nomination.
"I'd like to see a change and let someone else have a try," Edith Cornelius, 69, said after voting for Halter near downtown Camden, Ark. But it was Lincoln's experience that drove W.J. Williams of Little Rock, 63, to support her, saying, "She has been in there a number of years and because of that, she is strong."
The winner of the June 8 run-off will face Republican Rep. John Boozman, who won the Republican nomination; the race is likely to be among the most competitive as Republicans try to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Elsewhere, Kentucky Republicans chose Paul – the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose 2008 presidential candidacy sparked legions of followers – as their nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning. Tea party activists lifted Paul to victory over Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who was the favored candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Celebrating his triumph, Paul – a 47-year-old eye surgeon making his first run for office – said, "I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back."
Among Paul's supporters was Bill Osburn, 79, from Murray, Ky., who said: "I'm against the establishment. They're all crooked, unreliable and selfish for power. ... We need citizen representatives, not political politicians."
In the fall, Paul will face Jack Conway, the Kentucky attorney general, winner over Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the Democratic primary.