Primaries to send message to both parties

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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.

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