Last updated: May 29, 2010 12:41 am

US parties receive wake-up call from insurgents

Democrats and Republicans were on Wednesday poring over primary results in four states for clues of voter sentiment ahead of November’s crucial congressional elections. Analysts suggest that factors other than an anti-incumbency backlash may have been at work.

The elections in Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Oregon were viewed as the first litmus test for November, when Republicans will be hoping to win majorities in the House and Senate, and Democrats will be trying to stem their losses.

Certainly, voters sent a wake-up call to the political establishments of both parties on Tuesday night, choosing insurgent candidates who challenged their parties’ wishes to run for Senate seats in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

In Kentucky, Republicans chose ophthalmologist Rand Paul, who is backed by the Tea Party movement and is the son of libertarian Ron Paul, as their Senate candidate over Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state and the man backed by the Grand Old Party establishment.

“I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back,” Mr Paul declared.

Doug Heye of the Republican National Committee dismissed suggestions Mr Paul’s victory in Kentucky was a slap in the face for the Republican establishment. The Tea Party movement “gives us more enthusiasm because we have voters who are more engaged and more active”, he said.

In Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak, a sitting congressman and a former navy vice-admiral, defeated incumbent senator Arlen Specter, who defected from the Republican party to the Democrats last year to boost his chances for re-election in the state.

Mr Sestak had labelled Mr Specter a “poster child for what’s gone wrong in Washington DC”. Many voters regarded his party switch as a cynical ploy. “Washington literally doesn’t feel – and people know it – that they have to be held accountable,” Mr Sestak told MSNBC on Wednesday.

The Democratic primary in Arkansas was inconclusive, with neither incumbent Blanche Lincoln nor her progressive challenger, Bill Halter, winning the 50 per cent needed to win the nomination outright. They go to a run-off on June 8.

Commentators warned against reading too much into the results, and especially against diagnosing anti-incumbent fever.

“I think the anti-establishment stuff has been overdone. It assumes that in previous elections there was a pro-establishment effect,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter, agreed. “Arlen Specter switched parties last year so he was not just a normal incumbent, and Ron Wyden in Oregon won with 90 per cent, so clearly voters in Oregon did not get the anti-incumbency memo,” he said.

Mr Gonzales said 98 per cent of incumbents who had been seeking renomination in primaries held this year had been victorious. “The losers get the headlines but there are a heck of a lot of incumbents still winning.”

But conservative commentators disagreed.

“It was an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent election and a rejection of Obama and his policies,” said Brian Darling of the Heritage Foundation. “His endorsements counted for nothing in Arkansas and Pennsylvania.”

In one of the most surprising results, Democrats easily retained the Pennsylvania House seat held by the late John Murtha for 36 years. The district had become increasingly conservative but Mr Murtha had been able to hold on to it thanks to the largesse he could bestow as chairman of the House appropriations committee.

The race had looked tight but Mark Critz, Mr Murtha’s former economic director, beat Tim Burns, a self-made millionaire and Tea Party organiser, by an eight-point margin.

The Pennsylvania House race should embolden Democrats and disappoint Re-publicans, Mr Gonzales said, as the GOP failed to win a district that had become increasingly more conservative and where Mr Obama is unpopular.

Mr Mann concurred. “If Obama and the Democrats play their cards right and they keep adding jobs through the rest of this year, they won’t be in such a bad place in November.” Democrats might lose 25 seats in the House and five in the Senate, retaining control of both, he said.

Still, Democrats should not be breaking out the champagne. Mr Gonzales said incumbents remained vulnerable and Democrats held more of the vulnerable seats than Republicans.

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