The four key lessons from Tuesday's primaries and special elections.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 17 2010 8:00 PM

Primary School

The four key lessons from Tuesday's elections in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

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Her position on the bill allowed labor unions and progressive groups, which dived into the race to punish Lincoln for her lukewarm support of health care reform, to declare victory—for their cause, if not their candidate. (They are supporting Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.) The derivatives legislation is a once-in-a-generation achievement for working people, they argue. As a political matter, their message was that Democrats shouldn't take them for granted. By moving quickly to limit their influence, Lincoln also helped them send that message.

Kentucky Republican Senate Primary
This is most interesting race, theatrically. Rand Paul continues the family tradition of upsetting the Republican Party order of things. Polls suggest he is almost certain to beat Mitch McConnell's hand-picked Republican Party candidate, Secretary of State Tray Grayson. Late in the race, Grayson has doubled-down on his establishment support.

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If Paul wins, there will now be three high-profile examples of the new contours of the GOP landscape. Anti-establishment fever cost three-term Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah his job, and it forced Charlie Crist out of the Republican field in Florida. Unlike the Democratic Party infighting in Arkansas—where Lincoln, the establishment candidate, appears to have been able to push back against the activist tide—the populist conservative tide in GOP politics is more powerful. Now we have to wait until November to find out how the Tea Party message plays with independent and moderate voters.

Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District
Of the four big races political elites are watching closely, this is the only one that isn't a primary. The three other races make for lively viewing, but this one, to elect a replacement for 37-year Democratic veteran John Murtha, who died in February, may be the most thematically interesting. Tim Burns, the Republican, is running against Washington bailouts and against the Democratic Congress. The landscape should favor him. The district is conservative (Murtha was pro gun and anti-abortion), the economy is bad, and the previous occupant of the office   was tinged with scandal. Mark Critz, who worked for Murtha, is linking Burns with the policies that brought about the economic collapse—which tracks with the core message of Obama and the Democratic Party nationally.

Democratic and Republican groups have poured millions of dollars into the race. Unions have been working it particularly hard—here working with the Democratic Party's interests, as opposed to what they're doing in Arkansas. The race is also being closely watched for hints about turnout. This is a low-energy year for Democrats, and Republicans are enthusiastic. If Democrats pull out a win, it may signal that an all-out push can save marginal seats in a year that favors Republicans. If they can't, Republicans can feel a little bit better about those 49 districts John McCain won in 2008 that also elected incumbent Democrats.

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