Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Kentucky Primaries Test Establishment

Open season on the establishment?

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The cherry blossoms have come and gone, but spring cleaning in Washington may just be getting started. Voters ousted two incumbents last week, and today's primary contests in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Kentucky will be good measures of the public's desire to sweep up inside the beltway.

Tea Partyers celebrated in Utah on May 8 after three-term Republican Sen. Robert Bennett lost his bid for renomination at his party's convention. Instead, a pair of Tea Party-backed candidates will compete in the party's June 22 primary. Then, last Tuesday, West Virginia state Sen. Mike Oliviero beat 14-term incumbent Rep. Alan Mollohan in that state's Democratic primary. Both upsets, analysts say, suggest that anti-incumbency will persist throughout the year. But peculiarities in each race—Utah's limited convention system and what some say was a lackluster campaign effort by Mollohan—leave questions about whether they are signs of a broader trend. Today's contests should help clear the picture.

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic establishment has lined up behind incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who only joined the party last April after more than 28 years in office as a Republican. Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired three-star U.S. Navy admiral, has rallied liberals as the true Democrat in the race. Ironically, Pennsylvania political analyst Jon Delano notes, before Specter's last re-election, in 2004, President George W. Bush's praise gave him an edge in the Republican primary against then-Rep. Pat Toomey, the likely GOP Senate nominee this fall. Now a Specter ad shows President Barack Obama telling a crowd, "I love you. And I love Arlen Specter." The Democratic primary is a tossup—a May 17 Quinnipiac University poll has Specter and Sestak in a dead heat. Either way, Delano says, Toomey has the edge in November.

In Arkansas, incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln also faces a tough challenge on the left. Her poll numbers remain stuck in the low 40s, while her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, has steadily gained ground since joining the race on March 1. With businessman D.C. Morrison polling at around 7 percent--according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll released May 9--neither Lincoln nor Halter may attain a majority, which would trigger a June 8 run-off. "There haven't been any serious policy differences between the two. [Halter]'s just simply taken an approach of, 'I'm not part of Washington so I'm not part of the problems,' " says Blake Rutherford, a progressive Arkansan political blogger.

Also in the South, Tea Partyers are looking to Kentucky's Senate GOP primary, for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, for their next victory. Conservatives like Sarah Palin have backed Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and son of Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul. He leads in polls against Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Recruited by national Republican leaders and endorsed by Senate GOP chief Mitch McConnell, Grayson has been pegged as the "establishment" pick. In the state's neck-and-neck Democratic primary, state Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo were in a statistical dead heat in the most recent polls.

Incumbents and insurgents alike will be watching the results closely. The outcome could send shock waves clear back to Washington.