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Primary Voters Display Discontent with Incumbents, ‘Establishment’ Candidates

May 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Tuesday's primary elections in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas ended with a veteran Senator out of the race, another forced into a runoff and a third facing a Tea Party outsider. Jim Lehrer reports on what these primaries mean for the general election in November.
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JIM LEHRER: Another veteran U.S. senator is gone. One more has been forced into a runoff. And a Tea Party outsider will challenge for a third.

That was the upshot of Tuesday’s primary results. The message from voters across the country was clearer than ever this morning: Incumbents and establishment candidates, beware.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in Pennsylvania, where 30-year veteran Senator Arlen Specter lost to two-term Congressman Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary.

REP. JOE SESTAK, D-Pa.: This is what democracy looks like.

REP. JOE SESTAK: A win for the people…

REP. JOE SESTAK: … over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.!

JIM LEHRER: Specter was a longtime Republican who switched parties last year. He had the support of the Obama administration and top Democrats in Pennsylvania, but to no avail.

SEN. BOB CASEY, D-Pa.: You have got high foreclosure, high unemployment, and people are feeling that stress. And, as they feel that stress, I think that plays out in the election. But I think the most important thing we have got to do is unify our party. I think we can do that, because the fall will be a tough competitive campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Sestak’s opponent in November will be former Republican Congressman Pat Toomey, who won his party’s nomination handily.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, it was Republican voters who bucked party leaders. They chose Tea Party favorite Rand Paul as their Senate nominee to face Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway.

RAND PAUL, R, Kentucky Senatorial candidate: The Tea Party movement is huge. The mandate of our victory tonight is huge. What you have done and what we are doing can transform America.

JIM LEHRER: Paul’s opponent, Trey Grayson, was endorsed by the state’s senior senator and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But Kentucky voters appeared more in synch with freshman Republican Senator Scott Brown, who won the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts last January.

SEN. SCOTT BROWN, R-Mass.: The people are angry, and whether it’s a Democrat or Republican that they have elected, it’s somebody new and different with different ideas. And I think people want some change, and that’s what you saw yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: In Arkansas, Democrats are headed for a June 8 runoff to pick a Senate nominee. Democrat Blanche Lincoln is seeking a third term.

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN, D-Ark.: The people of Arkansas have spoken. We want to control our own destiny, and we will.

JIM LEHRER: Lincoln is locked in a tough battle with Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who has strong backing from unions and progressives.

The night’s other noteworthy race was a special U.S. House election in Pennsylvania. Democratic Mark Critz won the seat of his former boss, the late Jack Murtha. That win stopped a string of Republican victories in off-year races. And, today, House Republican leader John Brennan said it proved his party still has work to do.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, House minority leader: It’s unfortunate that we lost, but we did. But we’re going to work hard. We’re going to work hard. And we’re going to work with the American people, and earn the trust of the American people, because that’s the way we will earn back our majority.

It was equally clear that, over the next five months, Democrats will have to work just as hard to keep their majorities.