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Tea Party triumphs in Ky. primary

Paul wins GOP race; Specter loses in Pa. | Anti-incumbent fervor hurts veterans

Republican US Senate candidate Rand Paul raised his arms to the cheers of supporters at his victory party in Bowling Green, Ky. Republican US Senate candidate Rand Paul raised his arms to the cheers of supporters at his victory party in Bowling Green, Ky. (Ed Reinke/Associated Press)
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / May 19, 2010

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Riding a wave of anger and frustration, insurgent candidate Rand Paul won Kentucky’s Republican primary for the US Senate last night, transforming the emotional potency of the Tea Party movement into a concrete GOP win and sending a chilling message to entrenched politicians across the country.

Anti-Washington, anti-incumbent fervor also affected a pair of crucial Democratic primary contests. In Pennsylvania, five-term Senator Arlen Specter lost his Democratic race to Representative Joe Sestak, who slammed the former Republican for being a party-switcher. Meanwhile, Senator Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas incumbent, was headed for an expensive and politically costly runoff for the Democratic nomination.

In a year that began with Republican Scott Brown scoring a stunning upset in Massachusetts’ Senate race, the contests foreshadowed a volatile midterm election season where no establishment-backed candidate — regardless of party — appears safe.

“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 in Kentucky last night.

“Washington is horribly broken,’’ he added. “The Tea Party movement is huge. The mandate of our victory tonight is huge,’’ Paul added, promising “a day of reckoning, a message to Washington that we are unhappy and that we want things done differently.’’

Paul, an ophthalmologist and son of Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican and former presidential candidate who enjoys a cult following among small-government advocates, is running to replace Senator Jim Bunning, a Republican who is retiring. The victory over Trey Grayson was a blow to Kentucky’s senior Senator, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who recruited Grayson for the race.

In Pennsylvania, veteran Senator Specter — who just over a year ago flipped parties in what he openly acknowledged was a move to keep his job — was ousted by Sestak, despite Specter’s endorsements from President Obama and organized labor leaders. Specter said last night that he will back Sestak in the general election.

“This is what democracy looks like,’’ an ebullient Sestak said late last night. It’s “a win for the people, over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.’’

Democrats held onto a prized House seat in Pennsylvania, with Mark Critz beating Republican Tim Burns for the seat opened by the death of Representative John P. Murtha. The race had national implications and somewhat dampens the GOP’s quest to wrest control of the House this November.

But voters in recent weeks had already rejected veteran Washington lawmakers.

Longtime conservative GOP Senator Bob Bennett of Utah suffered a shocking defeat earlier this month when Tea Party movement activists helped defeat his nomination for a fourth Senate term. Last week, 15-term Democrat Alan Mollohan lost his primary in West Virginia.

“This is not a good year to be an incumbent,’’ said Peter A. Brown, a pollster for Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

In Kentucky, Paul will face state Attorney General Jack Conway, who won the Democratic nomination last night in a tight race against Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo.

Lincoln, a moderate Democrat who lost the support of organized labor, appeared headed for a runoff against the state’s lieutenant governor, Bill Halter.

Specter, an irascible survivor of two bouts of Hodgkin’s disease, was faced with a surprisingly strong challenge following a tumultuous political year. Specter won the loyalty of much of the Democratic establishment, including Obama, when he switched parties last year, helping Democrats reach the 60-vote threshold required to overcome GOP filibusters. Brown’s election in January brought the Democratic caucus count down to 59.

But Sestak gained steam among Democratic primary voters, in large part because the party rank and file didn’t trust Specter to be a loyal Democrat, said Jon Delano, a Pennsylvania-based independent political analyst. Obama didn’t step in to help Specter in the last days of his campaign, instead traveling to Ohio to discuss the economy.

“For 30 years, Democrats had been voting against Arlen Specter. And then Arlen was asking Democrats to vote for him,’’ Delano said. “The question was really whether Democrats believed Specter had changed his spots enough to warrant their support.’’

Democrats expect to lose seats in both the House and Senate this fall, as Republicans rally grass-roots support from conservative elements such as the Tea Party movement. But in the primaries as well, rank-and-file Democrats were showing discontent with their party’s incumbents.

Many primary voters are unhappy with the deal-making their representatives in Washington have made in crafting legislation — concessions longtime lawmakers say are necessary to pass complicated legislation, but which party activists see as a betrayal, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

Grayson, for example, sold himself as a “technician’’ who could get things done, a message that does not sell with the antiestablishment, fiscal conservatives supporting Paul, he said. Lincoln is viewed as too conservative by some Democratic primary voters, and Specter — the target of Democrats in his last five Senate races — also fought unsuccessfully to convince his new party that he is an ardent backer of Democratic ideals.

“What I’m seeing nationwide is in general, both parties are punishing their compromisers,’’ Voss said. “Right now [voters] are not interested in good horsemanship, they’re interested in setting the horse free.’’

In Arkansas, organized labor has been furious with Lincoln — a candidate labor unions previously have endorsed — because of her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier for workers to form unions. Further, union leaders were aggravated when Lincoln backed the “Cadillac tax’’ on high-end plans in the new health care law. Union officials argued that their members have often given up pay increases in exchange for better health benefits, and they don’t want to be punished for it in the tax code.

“Blanche Lincoln has abandoned working families. She’s turned her back on us. She hasn’t supported us on anything, really, said Mike Koller, president of the Arkansas Coalition of Unions.

Lincoln has countered that it’s not realistic to expect her to back the union agenda 100 percent of the time. But “unions are about negotiations and agreement. We know it’s give and take,’’ Koller said. “With her, it seems like she’s been against us 100 percent of the time.’’

However, the primary winners may not be the strongest candidates going into the November general election, political specialists said. Primary voters tend to be party activists; general election voters draw from a broader pool that may favor a more moderate candidate.

Democrats are salivating at the Paul win in Kentucky, a conservative state usually a long shot at best for Democrats in statewide races.

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