Anti-establishment candidates had another big night Tuesday, as Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., lost a renomination bid to a candidate who refused to bow to pressure from President Obama and Pennsylvania's governor to quit the race, and tea-party favorite Rand Paul defeated Senate Minority Leader McConnell's handpicked candidate for the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky.
With 80 percent of precincts reporting in Pennsylvania, Rep. Joe Sestak led Specter, 53 percent to 47 percent and the Associated Press declared Sestak the winner.
Specter is the second incumbent senator to be defeated in the early stages of the primary season. On May 8, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, saw his re-election effort derailed by a state party convention. Tea-party favorite Mike Lee was one of two Republicans who were chosen by the convention to square off in the June 22 primary.
Specter quit the Republican Party last year after he decided he would have a tough time winning the GOP nomination over a more conservative candidate, former Rep. Pat Toomey. While other candidates bowed to pressure to clear the way for Specter in the Democratic race, Sestak stayed in the race and surged in polls in recent weeks.
In Kentucky, Paul, an eye surgeon, easily outdistanced Secretary of State Trey Grayson for the Republican nod in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning. State Attorney General Jack Conway won a much tighter Democratic primary over Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Paul had 59 percent to Grayson's 35 percent. In the Democratic race, Conway, with 44 percent, was declared the winner over Mongiardo, with 43 percent, according to the Associated Press.
The fate of another embattled Democratic incumbent, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, was not settled at presstime. With 29 percent of precincts reporting, Lincoln had 44 percent to 41 percent for Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Lincoln and Halter will face each other in a June 8 runoff if neither candidate tops 50 percent.
On the House side, Democrats held on to the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, with former Murtha aide Mark Critz topping Republican Tim Burns in a special election to fill out the term. They are likely to square off again in November for a full two-year term.
The Kentucky win capped a remarkable turnaround for Paul, who earlier in the cycle had trouble getting into official GOP events.
"I have a message, a message from the tea party. ... We have come to take our government back," Paul said in his victory speech.
Paul's victory also represented a home state defeat for McConnell, who helped raise money for Grayson and endorsed him with just weeks left in the race. "It's one thing when you endorse a guy," said one GOP staffer. "It's another when you handpick them."
McConnell is wasting little time switching sides now that the votes are counted. Aides said he would join Paul at a unity rally at state GOP headquarters in Frankfort -- in a building named for McConnell.
Just as Republicans moved to quickly embrace Paul in Kentucky, Democrats circled around Sestak in Pennsylvania.
"Come November, the choice for Pennsylvanians could not be clearer: Congressman Sestak, who has fought for middle-class Americans, or ultra-conservative Republican Pat Toomey, a former Wall Street derivatives trader who would represent instead the powerful special interests funding his campaign and who during his brief tenure in Congress had a right wing voting record that would make [former GOP Sen.] Rick Santorum look like a moderate," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine.
This article appears in the May 22, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.