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.

Sen. Arlen Specter. Click image to expand.
Sen. Arlen Specter

We know that this is a "throw the bums out" election. Tuesday, voters in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Kentucky will give us a sign of just how far they want to throw them. In three party primaries and one special election, voters will offer hints about their mood toward the president's policies as well as incumbents in both parties that will help shape the political decisions for the rest of the year. Here's a look at each of the big races:

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate
Sen. Arlen Specter is indestructible. He's survived two bouts with cancer, arguments with Anita Hill that horrified female voters, and the authorship of the much-derided "single-bullet theory" of the Kennedy assassination. (His quixotic bid for the 1996 presidential nomination as a pro-choice Republican was such a long shot it doesn't even count.) If Specter loses the Democratic primary, it will mark a historic political moment.

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There are two kinds of angry voters this year: those who think their party's representatives have been insufficiently respectful of their party's ideology, and those who think Washington politicians are only concerned with saving their jobs. Specter, who switched to the Democratic Party in 2009 after 30 years as a Republican senator, has managed to irritate both groups.

The race is embarrassing for the White House because it shows the limits of presidential political power. Obama's aides failed to persuade Specter's opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, to get out of the race. And the president's political power is so limited, he dared not risk it by swooping in at the last minute to campaign for Specter. Obama's campaigning against Republicans in Massachusetts and New Jersey didn't help much. Why risk it in Pennsylvania?

The most important thing the president could do Tuesday is what he is doing: campaigning in Youngstown, Ohio, for his stimulus package. Obama may lack influence in a quirky intraparty battle. But he can affect the general election dynamic by improving the way voters feel about the role Democrats played in improving the economy. To do that, he has to create a link in the minds of voters between an improving economy and his policies.

Then, he'll have to convince voters that the less popular Democrats in Congress deserve praise for that too—a lot to accomplish by November.  It's not an easy sell. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only 18 percent said the stimulus package had been effective—but at least Obama has a shot at changing their minds. And 573,000 jobs have been created over the last four months—at least there's a chance that trend could continue.

Arkansas Democratic Senate Primary
In a year of anti-incumbent and anti-establishment sentiment, Sen. Blanche Lincoln may survive not because she distanced herself from Washington, but because she knew how to use her experience to her advantage. The primary challenge from her left allowed her to establish herself as independent, an important thing this election year. In her early television ad, she declared: "I don't answer to my party. I answer to Arkansas." She then used the power of her position to undermine the case being made against her. As chairman of the agriculture committee, which matters in a state where 25 percent of the economy comes from agriculture, she spearheaded an anti-derivatives bill that was even harsher on Wall Street firms than legislation the White House was promoting. This helped her combat the claim that she was too close to corporate America—and allowed Obama to herald her in a radio ad as "leading the fight to hold Wall Street accountable and make sure that Arkansas taxpayers are never again asked to bail out Wall Street bankers."