The Washington order suffered big losses Tuesday, with establishment-backed candidates losing or facing a fight for their political survival in all three marquee Senate primaries on both the Republican and Democratic sides.
Insurgent candidate Rep. Joe Sestak toppled Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff in Arkansas’s Democratic primary and newcomer Rand Paul, riding “tea party” momentum, steamrolled to victory in Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary.
Democrats did get good news, keeping alive a three-year winning streak in House special elections when congressional aide Mark Critz easily held the Pennsylvania seat left vacant after the death of Rep. John P. Murtha, a towering figure among Washington Democrats. Republicans had tried to turn the race into a referendum on President Obama, but acknowledged that approach came up short in what many saw as a classic swing district.
Still, the message of the night was what Mr. Paul called “a day of reckoning” for those in power on Capitol Hill.
“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,” Mr. Paul, a 47-year-old ophthalmologist from Bowling Green and the son of Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, said at his victory party after trouncing Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson by 24 percentage points.
Mr. Rand triumphed despite his opponent’s heavy backing by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Vice President Dick Cheney and much of the Kentucky GOP establishment.
In Pennsylvania’s Senate primary, Mr. Sestak, a former Navy rear admiral, won in a decisive manner, topping Mr. Specter by seven percentage points with 85 percent of precincts reporting.
Like Mr. Paul, Mr. Sestak said his campaign was a strike against career politicians who are only trying to protect their jobs.
“Accountability has been missing for far too long, and I want to help bring it back,” he said.
His win sets up a general election contest with former Rep. Pat Toomey, a Republican who narrowly lost a primary to Mr. Specter in 2004 when the incumbent was still a member of the GOP.
Mr. Specter jumped parties last year after he voted for the economic stimulus package and realized it had hurt him so badly among Republican voters that he’d lose a primary rematch with Mr. Toomey. He acknowledged that his only chance at remaining in office was to run as a Democrat.
He immediately won pledges of support from President Obama, who campaigned for him, and from top congressional Democrats. But that wasn’t enough to deter Mr. Sestak, who was strongly backed by the party’s liberal wing.
Mr. Specter wiped away tears as he voted Tuesday, ABC reported. And in the evening he delivered a short concession speech in which he promised to work hard for the rest of his term.
In Arkansas, Mrs. Lincoln clung to a slight lead over Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, but the two-term centrist incumbent was not able to top the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff, with a third candidate, DC Morrison, siphoning votes from the two.
With about 43 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, Mrs. Lincoln had 44 percent of the vote to Mr. Halter’s 42 percent.
Still, Mrs. Lincoln’s campaign had sounded confident on Tuesday afternoon, issuing a statement declaring that she “has fought off this challenge from outside groups and ends the primary election period battle-tested.”
Mr. Halter jumped into the race just a few months ago after arguing that Mrs. Lincoln was betraying Democratic allies on labor issues and on health care reform.
Boosted by a wave of discontent among liberal voters, he got immediate support and campaign contributions from labor union members and pressure groups such as MoveOn.org’s political action committee, and his race shaped up as the key test for whether angry progressives could topple a sitting senator.
On the Republican side, Rep. John Boozman hovered right around the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff in the crowded Republican field.
Even though the tea party adherents have received the most attention, liberal pressure groups showed they can flex electoral muscle as well.
For example, MoveOn.org’s political action committee backed Mr. Sestak, Mr. Halter and the winner of Kentucky’s Democratic Senate primary, Attorney General Jack Conway. Mr. Conway narrowly topped Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo.
Already on Tuesday, Washington Democrats were touting the virtues of Mr. Sestak’s insurgent campaign.
“He knows what is wrong with Washington, and if elected to the Senate will shake up how business is done in the Capitol,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Democrats also gloated at Mr. Paul’s victory, calling it a rejection of Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who had endorsed Mr. Grayson. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Mr. Paul is “outside of the political mainstream” and that Republicans have hurt their chances to keep the seat now held by retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning in November.
In Oregon, Sen. Ron Wyden was facing little opposition in gaining the Democratic nomination to run for a fourth term.
The electoral waters have already been bloodied this year by incumbents thrown overboard by voters.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, failed even to qualify for a two-candidate runoff as GOP primary voters punished him for working on a health care bill with Democrats - even though that measure failed and he voted against the eventual health care overhaul package.
In West Virginia, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, a 14-term Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee, fell last week in the primary to conservative Democrat Mike Oliverio by more than 10 percentage points. Mr. Mollohan had been dogged by ethics accusations.
Democrats on Tuesday eagerly pointed to the special election for Mr. Murtha’s seat in Pennsylvania, which they called the evening’s most important race. They argued that if Republicans could not win that swing district they were unlikely to win enough seats in November to take control of the House.
It was the only congressional district in Pennsylvania to vote for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and for Republican candidate John McCain in 2008, and is seen as a key test of the GOP’s appeal to conservative Democrats.
Republican operatives said privately that their party blew a chance to win the seat, and party leaders said they’ll have to study what went wrong.
“Tonight’s result was undoubtedly disappointing, but we will take the lessons learned from this campaign and move forward in preparation for November,” said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
He said Mr. Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns by running away from Mr. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Still, Democrats’ House special election winning streak is likely to come to an end Saturday, when voters in Hawaii fill the seat of former Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who resigned to run for governor.
Two Democrats are splitting their party’s vote in that liberal district, leaving Republican candidate Charles Djou ahead in the polls. That election is being conducted by mail.