Voters' Anti-Establishment Mood Bites Both Parties

Associated Press + More

WASHINGTON — Years in office, high-profile endorsements and pork-barrel clout may not count for much this election year.

Angry voters so far have shown little love for establishment candidates, raising questions about the value of traditional tools like political machines and delivering pet projects.

Primary elections next week in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky may signal whether a full-blown trend is under way. If it is, future campaigns might become more bottom-up in nature, catering to voters who won't be guided by political elites.

The anti-establishment tide that ended Republican Bob Bennett's three-term Senate career in Utah has clearly spread beyond the tea party. On Tuesday, it helped topple 28-year Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.

In Pennsylvania, many Democratic voters seem unmoved by President Barack Obama's pleas to embrace former Republican Arlen Specter in next week's Senate primary.

Bennett, Mollohan and Specter have one thing in common: They are veteran appropriators who take pride in delivering federally financed projects to their states.

But voters' alarm over deficit spending is turning that tactic into a liability, said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a darling of the hard-right tea party movement.

"Voters don't buy this idea that, 'Hey, we've got unsustainable debt and I need $1 million for my museum,'" DeMint said in an interview Wednesday.

Anger and frustration with Washington is even more intense this year as unemployment hovers around 10 percent and home foreclosures hit record highs. The party controlling the White House typically loses seats in a president's first midterm elections, but polls show public approval of Obama and the Democrats sliding, threatening the party's control of Congress.

Specter's nomination for a sixth six-year term seemed virtually assured last year when the entire Democratic establishment, including Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell, backed him in exchange for his switch from the GOP.

But Rep. Joe Sestak, who bills himself as the contest's true Democrat, has erased Specter's big lead in the polls. Tuesday's vote is expected to be close. Obama appears in a last-minute TV ad for Specter in hopes of avoiding an embarrassing upset.

Should Specter lose, he would be the third prominent politician in a month to fall in intraparty contests.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was expected to cruise into the Senate, with barely a thought to his party's primary. But conservative Marco Rubio and tea party activists drove Crist from the GOP, and he is running as an independent.

In Utah, Bennett fell victim Saturday to the once-unthinkable claim that he's not conservative enough. His sins, according to those who taunted him at a state GOP convention, include voting for the 2008 bank bailout pushed by Republican President George W. Bush.

Perhaps the clearest example of well-established lawmakers' woes is the tough challenge being thrown at Sen. John McCain of Arizona — the GOP's presidential nominee two years ago — by conservative J.D. Hayworth, a former House member.

In Democratic races, Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Michael Bennet of Colorado are battling viable primary opponents attacking them from the left. Obama supports both incumbents, but their challengers portray themselves as more faithful to Democratic ideals.

Establishment politicians are doing well in some states, although a few had to placate their party's base. Five-term GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa beat back talk of a Republican challenge from the right, in part by abandoning negotiations with Democrats on a massive health care bill last year.

Polls show that roughly half of Americans want to fire their congressman. DeMint says the anger is less anti-incumbent in nature than anti-arrogance and anti-elitism.

He said many voters will forgive Republicans who say they erred by voting for the bank bailout bill. But some lawmakers "go home and say, 'You don't understand, I do.' It's the arrogance that is hurting people."

Republican voters in Kentucky are showing little interest in their party leader's wishes. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell worked for months to push his GOP seatmate, Sen. Jim Bunning, into retirement, fearing Bunning would lose this fall to a Democrat.