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Senators Pit Seniority Versus Anti-Incumbent Anger in Primaries

Senator Arlen Specter
Senator Arlen Specter speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Two Democratic U.S. senators will try to beat back primary challengers who could deny them re-nomination today in an election year that’s becoming tough for incumbents.

Senator Arlen Specter, 80, flew around Pennsylvania yesterday trying to preserve a 30-year Senate career, first as a Republican and more recently as a Democrat.

Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln told reporters yesterday that she has confronted an “unbelievably challenging” primary campaign. The two-term incumbent said she was surprised by the level of involvement of “outside groups,” such as labor unions and the liberal activist group, that have spent millions of dollars to boost her opponent, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, 49.

Specter is locked in a tight race with Representative Joe Sestak, 58, in Pennsylvania’s primary.

Lincoln, 49, is leading in recent polls in her race. The presence of a third primary candidate, businessman D.C. Morrison, may force a June 8 runoff if nobody wins at least 50 percent of the vote.

Republicans in Arkansas will choose today from eight candidates seeking the nomination. Representative John Boozman, 59, is leading, according to opinion polls.

Kentucky Primary

In Kentucky’s marquee primary contest, two Republicans made their final pitches to voters yesterday in bids for their party’s nod to replace retiring Republican Senator Jim Bunning.

Today’s results from Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky will offer insight into whether congressional seniority, clout and their associated local benefits are being trumped by an anti-incumbent mood among voters.

Amid that resentment toward Washington, Republicans are gearing up to try in November’s general election to reduce Democratic House and Senate majorities -- and perhaps take control of one or both chambers.

Democrats control the Senate, 59-41, and the House, 254-177. Four seats are vacant in the House; one will be filled in a special election in Pennsylvania today.

President Barack Obama endorsed both Specter and Lincoln, although he didn’t personally stump for them in the closing days of their campaigns.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday declined to speculate on the political significance of today’s primaries.

“Based on the election results” so far this year, “it’s been a tough year for incumbents,” he told reporters. “We have supported incumbent Democratic senators and we’ve done a lot on the behalf of each campaign.”

Pennsylvania Poll

A poll completed May 16 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, based in Hamden, Connecticut, showed Sestak is backed by 42 percent of likely primary voters while Specter, who switched parties in April 2009, is supported by 41 percent. Another 16 percent said they are undecided. The survey was taken May 12-16; its margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Sestak told voters in Pittsburgh yesterday that Specter’s “time has come and gone,” the Associated Press reported.

In Kentucky, the muscle of the Tea Party protest movement will be tested in the Senate primary pitting a candidate backed by the state’s Republican establishment against the son of Representative Ron Paul of Texas.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson faces Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist. Paul’s father, a Texas congressman, once ran for president as the Libertarian Party candidate and, as a Republican House member, for years has sought the abolishment of the Federal Reserve.

McConnell Backing

Grayson’s supporters include Kentucky’s other senator, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.

Democrats in Kentucky are picking between Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway for their Senate nominee.

In a special election for the Pennsylvania House seat vacated by the death of Democratic Representative John Murtha, Democrats have about a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registrations in the western Pennsylvania congressional district. Still, the race is competitive between Democrat Mark Critz, a Murtha aide, and Republican businessman Tim Burns.

Today’s contests follow the Utah state Republican convention’s May 8 vote that ended three-term Senator Bob Bennett’s re-nomination bid, and the May 11 primary loss in West Virginia of 14-term Representative Alan Mollohan, a Democrat.

An Oregon primary will select Democratic and Republican candidates for governor. Term limits prevent Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski from running again.

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