Philadelphia – Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched from Republican to Democrat because he felt he couldn’t survive a GOP primary, lost Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary Tuesday night to Rep. Joe Sestak, unable to shake his Republican past and the anti-incumbent sentiment prevalent among the nation’s voters.
“It’s been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania and a great privilege to be in the United States Senate,” a stoic Specter told a stunned ballroom full of supporters. “I will be working very hard for the people of the commonwealth in the coming months. Thank you all.”
With 79 percent of the precincts reporting, Sestak led Specter by 53 percent to 47 percent.
“This is what democracy looks like,” a jubilant Sestak told supporters. “A win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, over Washington, D.C.”
Earlier Tuesday, in another example of voters’ discontent, Republican Rand Paul, a Tea Party-backed political newcomer, defeated the GOP establishment candidate in Kentucky’s senate primary.
Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, beat Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson for the Republican nomination to run in November for the Senate seat open by the retirement of Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Paul led Grayson by 59 percent to 35 percent. Paul, 47, will now face 40-year-old Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who squeaked by in his Democratic primary Tuesday.
Paul’s victory represented a defeat for Kentucky’s Republican hierarchy, which solidly backed Grayson. Powerful Kentucky senior senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put his weight behind Grayson, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney, who called Grayson the real conservative in the race.
“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. “The mandate of our victory is huge.”
In a statement, McConnell said that Paul “ran an outstanding campaign which clearly struck a chord with Kentucky voters and I congratulate him on his impressive victory. Now Kentucky republicans will unite in standing against the overreaching policies of the Obama Administration.”
In Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, voters were showing a willingness to buck Republican and Democratic party loyalty.
In Arkansas, Lincoln, 49, a two-term centrist incumbent, was campaigning hard to win over 50 percent of the vote against state Lt. Gov. Bill Halter to avoid a runoff election, but a third Democrat in the primary could complicate those efforts.
“The vote tonight is really anti-establishment,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducts surveys throughout the nation. “Is there anything in this country making people happy? The bad economy sure doesn’t make anyone happy.”
Specter’s defeat likely ends the storied career of Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator, a former prosecutor who gained famed by advancing the so-called “single bullet” theory in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and infamy among some voters for his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearing.
Specter, an 80-year-old five-term incumbent and two-time cancer survivor, was hoping his switch from Republican to Democrat and the political support of President Barack Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and the AFL-CIO would push him over Sestak, and put him on a path to face former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in November’s general election.
However, Sestak, a 58-year-old two-term House member and retired Navy three-star admiral managed to erase a double-digit deficit to pull into a dead heat with Specter in the days leading to the primary.
He did so with a barrage of television ads in the closings days of the campaign that portrayed Specter as a political opportunist, reminded voters of Specter’s Republican past by showing pictures of him with former President George W. Bush, and portrayed Sestak as the only Democrat in the race.
“Looks to me that Sestak timed his campaign just right,” said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican consultant and a Specter friend. “He (Specter) tried to pull off a difficult thing, switch parties, win a primary and win a general election.”
Lincoln was thought to be the most vulnerable candidate prior to the primary. Lincoln angered Democratic liberals and labor organizations with her moderate voting record. She was one of the last Democratic holdouts in November on a crucial test vote that kept the health care bill alive, but in March, was one of three Senate Democrats to oppose the bill on final passage.
MoveOn.org, a group friendly to Democrats, proudly reported Tuesday that more than 50,000 of its members gave nearly $2 million to Halter’s campaign. The group also supported Sestak over Specter.
(Douglas reported from Philadelphia; Abdullah and Lightman reported from Washington.)