Politics & Government

Sestak defeats Specter in Pennsylvania Senate primary

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has decided to become a Democrat.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has decided to become a Democrat. Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune / MCT

PHILADELPHIA — It was a bad night for incumbents and establishment candidates in Tuesday’s Senate primary elections as Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter lost to a lesser-known rival and Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln failed to get enough votes to avoid a runoff against a more liberal challenger next month.

Earlier Tuesday evening, Rand Paul, a Tea Party-backed political novice, soundly beat an opponent strongly backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky GOP hierarchy for the nomination to run for the open Senate seat created by Sen. Jim Bunning’s retirement.

In Arkansas, Lincoln, 49, a two-term centrist incumbent who failed to get 50 percent of the vote, will face Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a June 8 runoff. A third Democrat in Tuesday's primary may have drawn votes away from both candidates.

"The vote tonight is really anti-establishment," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducts surveys throughout the nation. "Is there anything in this country making people happy? The bad economy sure doesn't make anyone happy."

The night's biggest upset: The defeat of Specter, a five-term, 80-year-old incumbent who last year switched parties to avoid an all-but-certain defeat in Pennsylvania's Republican primary.

"It's been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania and a great privilege to be in the United States Senate," Specter told his supporters, conceding to Rep. Joe Sestak. "I will be working very hard for the people of the commonwealth in the coming months. Thank you all."

With 79 percent of the precincts reporting, Sestak led Specter by 53 percent to 47 percent.

"This is what democracy looks like," Sestak told supporters celebrating his victory. "A win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, over Washington, D.C."

Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, beat Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson for the Republican Senate nomination. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Paul led Grayson by 59 percent to 35 percent. Paul, 47, will now face 40-year-old Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who squeaked by in his Democratic primary Tuesday.

Paul's victory represented a defeat for Kentucky's Republican hierarchy, which backed Grayson. McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, put his weight behind Grayson, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney, who called Grayson the real conservative in the race.

"I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We've come to take our government back," Paul told supporters. "The mandate of our victory is huge."

In a statement, McConnell said that Paul "ran an outstanding campaign which clearly struck a chord with Kentucky voters, and I congratulate him on his impressive victory. Now, Kentucky Republicans will unite in standing against the overreaching policies of the Obama administration."

In all three states, voters showed a willingness to buck the party establishment.

Specter was hoping his switch from Republican to Democrat and the backing of President Barack Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and the AFL-CIO would push him over Sestak, and put him on a path to face former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in November's general election.

However, Sestak, a 58-year-old two-term House member and retired Navy three-star admiral managed to erase a double-digit deficit to pull into a dead heat with Specter in the days leading to the primary.

He did so with a barrage of television ads in the closings days of the campaign that portrayed Specter as a political opportunist, reminded voters of Specter's Republican past by showing pictures of him with former President George W. Bush, and portrayed Sestak as the only Democrat in the race.

"Looks to me that Sestak timed his campaign just right," said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican consultant and a Specter friend. "He (Specter) tried to pull off a difficult thing, switch parties, win a primary and win a general election."

Lincoln, who angered Democratic liberals and labor organizations with her moderate voting record, was thought to be the most vulnerable candidate prior to the primary.

She was one of the last Democratic holdouts in November on a crucial test vote that kept the health care bill alive, but in March, was one of three Senate Democrats to oppose the bill on final passage.

MoveOn.org, a group friendly to Democrats, proudly reported Tuesday that more than 50,000 of its members gave nearly $2 million to Halter's campaign. The group also supported Sestak over Specter.

(Douglas reported from Philadelphia; Abdullah and Lightman reported from Washington.)


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