WASHINGTON — Voters in four states will go to the polls Tuesday in primary elections that could offer the best window so far into the level of anti-incumbent, anti-establishment sentiment in the electorate.
Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon and Pennsylvania hold primaries Tuesday, and political observers are paying close attention to all but Oregon, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden is expected to win handily.
Democrats and Republicans are sweating over Senate contests in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, which are considered prime tests of voter discontent with incumbents and the power of the tea party movement.
"The overall environment has changed where you have an element of voters in both parties who are unhappy with the direction (their) party is headed," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the Cook Political Report. "You have progressives who are unhappy with the Democrats, and on the Republican side you have the conservative element, the tea party, which believes this president and this Congress (are) out to change the fabric of American life."
In Pennsylvania, incumbent Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, who left the Republican Party last year because he thought he'd lose a GOP primary, has watched his comfortable double-digit lead evaporate to a statistical dead heat over lesser-known Rep. Joe Sestak.
Specter's slide has occurred despite the strong backing of President Barack Obama, the AFL-CIO and Pennsylvania's popular Democratic governor, Ed Rendell.
Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney said that Specter's woes were expected, given Republican Scott Brown's surprising January election to the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat long held by the late Democrat Edward Kennedy, three-term incumbent GOP Sen. Robert Bennett's rejection last week by a Utah Republican Party convention and 14-term Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan's defeat last Tuesday in West Virginia's primary.
"There's a lot of anti-incumbent feeling out there," Rooney said, "but we have a group in the Specter team that has experience in winning close elections."
Polls and independent experts in Pennsylvania said there was unease among Democratic voters about Specter's GOP past, an issue that Sestak hammers away at on the stump and in TV ads.
No one counts out Specter on Tuesday, but many in the state agree that things don't look good for the sometimes gruff, 80-year-old, five-term incumbent nicknamed "Snarlin' Arlen."
"The intangibles are clearly on Sestak's side," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which released a poll this week that found Specter leading Sestak by 44 to 42 percent.
"Troubling for Specter is that one in seven likely primary voters is undecided, and incumbents — especially 30-year incumbents who have switched parties — rarely get much of the undecided vote," Brown said.
"It's interesting that people who have run tons of campaigns in the past are on the verge of losing to what some would see as a lesser campaign, and that's a testament to the difference in dynamics," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.
In Kentucky, endorsements from GOP kingmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and former Vice President Dick Cheney apparently aren't working for Trey Grayson in his quest for the Senate seat held by Republican Jim Bunning, who's retiring.
Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state, trails tea party-backed Rand Paul by double digits. Paul's a political newcomer and the son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a failed 2008 presidential candidate.
The Kentucky race is seen as a major test of the tea party's clout as a grass-roots movement powered by disgruntled conservatives who bemoan what they see as an unprecedented expansion of federal government.
Among Republicans, Paul held a 44 percent to 32 percent lead over Grayson in a recent Research 2000 poll of likely GOP voters. Seventeen percent remained undecided, and 7 percent favored three lesser-known candidates.
Should Paul pull off a coup in Kentucky, the win will speak volumes not only about the current anti-establishment fervor, but also about the growing disconnect between the Republican Party establishment and grass-roots conservatives.
For many tea party members, Paul has come to symbolize the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington insurgency. He has the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, and evangelical leader James Dobson, who's called his earlier support for Grayson "an embarrassing mistake."
Paul has criticized Republicans and Democrats alike for their support of budget earmarks, which funnel money to projects in their home districts, and of a $700 billion bailout for banks as the economy crumbled in late 2008. McConnell won re-election that year as he supported the bank bailout and waged a campaign that centered on his ability to steer money to Kentucky.
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, has refused to say whether he'd support McConnell if a challenger seeks his Senate leadership post. Paul's hedging is telling in a state where McConnell's sway not only inspired fellow Republicans to name the state party's headquarters after him, but also helped salvage Bunning's ailing 2004 re-election campaign.
Bunning returned the favor by endorsing Paul to take his seat.
While there's Republican hand-wringing in Kentucky, national Democrats are breathing a little more easily over Arkansas, where two-term Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is battling Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who's challenging the centrist incumbent from the left.
Halter's campaign has received millions of dollars from liberal Democrats and strong support from labor unions, which are angry over Lincoln's opposition to a government-run component in the health care legislation and to a so-called "card check" measure that would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
Despite such opposition, Lincoln led a Mason-Dixon survey earlier this month by 8 percentage points. Analysts think that her leadership of the recent Senate effort to get tough on derivatives, the exotic financial instruments that exacerbated the 2008 economic collapse, has given her populist appeal.
Max Brantley, the editor of the Arkansas Times, a liberal newspaper, said that Lincoln also could be scoring "with her personality message, the message that 'I'm like you.' "
Arkansas Poll Director Janine Parry said that some Democrats were gravitating toward Lincoln because they doubted that Halter could win in November's general election against U.S. Rep. John Boozman, the likely Republican candidate, who has a commanding lead over both Democrats in polls.
Lincoln isn't home free yet. If she fails to get 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, she and the runner-up, presumably Halter, would face each other again in a runoff in three weeks. Analysts think that the anti-Lincoln forces then would combine to deny her the nomination.
(David Lightman contributed to this report.)
The Quinnipiac University poll was conducted May 5-10 with 945 Pennsylvania likely Democratic primary voters. It has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.2 percentage points.
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