- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2010

All politics may be local, but the results of Tuesday’s primaries will answer some of the biggest national questions this year about the deep anger of “tea party” activists on the right, perturbed progressives on the left, and how much they’ll shake up the established Washington order.

Incumbent Democrats are facing stiff challenges in Senate primaries in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, while Republicans’ establishment-backed candidate trails in Kentucky’s Senate primary to a tea-party-backed insurgent.

Also at stake Tuesday is Democrats’ winning streak in contested special House elections, which stretches all the way back to the beginning of 2008 and spans about a half-dozen contests. Republicans have a chance of winning the Pennsylvania district that was held by Rep. John P. Murtha.

“This is a very difficult district for Democrats, and the polls are showing that it’s neck and neck heading into the final days,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a late fundraising plea on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is trying to boost its candidate, Mark Critz.

Meanwhile, new Republican stars such as Sen. Scott Brown have visited Pennsylvania to campaign for Republican candidate Tim Burns, and outside groups that back the GOP are testing their retooled strategy by airing ads backing Mr. Burns.

But the Senate races are likely to dominate Tuesday’s news.

The two nastiest battles are Democratic contests in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, where establishment-backed incumbent Sens. Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln, respectively, are facing tough competition from within their own party — and have even stiffer competition if they make it to the general election.

In Pennsylvania, Rep. Joe Sestak has the backing of liberal pressure groups hoping to oust Mr. Specter, while in Arkansas, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter has liberal groups and labor unions boosting his primary challenge to Mrs. Lincoln.

“Joe Sestak has a strong record in Congress, supporting health care reform, clean energy, and a woman’s right to choose,” Doug Gordon, a spokesman for MoveOn.org Political Action Committee, told reporters in an e-mail announcing that the liberal organization would rally its supporters for Mr. Sestak. “If he wins the primary on Tuesday, it’ll send a powerful message that voters want Democrats in Congress who’ll proudly lead the fight for progressive legislation.”

Both races are rough affairs.

Mr. Sestak, a former Navy rear admiral, recently accused Mr. Specter of disparaging his military service, while Mr. Specter demanded Mr. Sestak release his records to prove he wasn’t relieved of duty.

Mr. Specter has been aided by support from the Democratic establishment, but hurt by the fact that until just a year ago, he was a Republican and repeatedly voted for the GOP’s priorities.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Sunday, Mr. Specter said he spent his time in the Senate trying “to moderate the Republican Party.” He said he would have been re-elected easily as a Republican this year, except for his vote for the economic-stimulus package.

“I said my prospects were bleak, because I’m being honest with the voters,” he said. “But my prospects turned bleak because I laid my job on the line.”

Mr. Sestak, though, said Mr. Specter “left his troops on the field” by fleeing the GOP.

Mr. Specter said he would support Mr. Sestak if the challenger wins the primary. Mr. Sestak did not make the same pledge, instead saying he is convinced he will win.

Former Rep. Pat Toomey, who challenged Mr. Specter in the 2004 GOP primary, is expected to cruise to the Republican nomination.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, Mr. Halter has painted Mrs. Lincoln as a friend of Wall Street. Mrs. Lincoln argues that Mr. Halter has resorted to “desperate lies” about her record and that she has set the right tone for an Arkansas Democrat in Washington.

On the Republican side are a host of candidates, though polls show Rep. John Boozman appears to have the upper hand.

In Kentucky, both parties have primaries for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jim Bunning’s retirement, but the GOP’s contest is more intriguing because it pits Secretary of State Trey Grayson against Rand Paul, son of Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul and a champion of the tea party movement.

Mr. Paul leads in the polls by about a dozen percentage points, despite Mr. Grayson having the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, architect of the Kentucky GOP.

“I think Trey Grayson would be a stronger candidate in November, but I expect Kentucky is going to be in a pretty Republican mood this fall, and I’m optimistic that whoever wins the primary will be the next senator from Kentucky,” Mr. McConnell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program Sunday.

The primaries in Oregon are less exciting, as Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, hasn’t fielded a major challenge either from his own party or from Republicans.

Also going on this week is a mail-in election in Hawaii for the seat of former Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who resigned to run for governor. The election is being conducted by mail, with ballots due back by Saturday.

A fracture among Hawaii Democrats appears ready to deliver Republicans the district, which would be a major coup, since Hawaii is among the most Democratic of states and is the birthplace and vacation spot for President Obama.

The DCCC essentially conceded the race here last week when it announced it would no longer be spending money to try to elect one of the two Democrats competing with a single Republican in a winner-take-all race. Polls show Republican Charles Djou leading the two Democrats.

Mr. Obama, who last year helped Democrats edge out their opponents in a couple of special House elections, is taking a hands-off approach to the two races this week.

White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters last week that the president has helped where he can, but his schedule is full.

“As you can imagine, there’s more than a few things on his plate right now,” Mr. Burton said.

Former President Bill Clinton has jumped in to help Mr. Critz, an aide to Mr. Murtha until the congressman’s death, win the special election over Mr. Burns, a businessman who’s running an anti-Washington, tea party campaign.

Polls suggest that Mr. Burns faces the unusual chance that he will win the special election but not get his party’s nomination to run for re-election in November.

Bill Russell, an Iraq veteran who ran a surprisingly tough campaign in 2008 against Mr. Murtha, is set to run in the GOP primary after being passed over by the party for the special-election race.

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