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.

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."

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.

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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