The sour mood of voters in the United States as it pulls out of the worst recession in seven decades gave a new jolt to Washington yesterday after primary elections in two key states that saw candidates supported by the leaderships of both parties summarily pushed aside in favour of anti-establishment insurgents.
In Pennsylvania, voters in the Democratic primary contest for the Senate seat held by veteran politician Arlen Specter, who only last year crossed the aisle from the Republican party, defied the admonitions of the party establishment and gave a victory instead to Joe Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral and US Congressman.
While the primary races are only about selecting candidates to run in the general midterm elections in November, which will see turnover of every US House seat and about a third of the seats in the US Senate, they are a good barometer of political sentiment, which more than ever is running strongly against incumbents and centrists.
The demise of Mr Specter, a fixture on Pennsylvania's political landscape for more than three decades, is a significant blow to the prestige of President Barack Obama, who supported him. The loss suggests that Mr Obama, who was himself elected with such hoopla 18 months ago, is not offering the Democrats in the field coat-tails they can hang on to. In some cases, his support may even damage their chances.
But the results from Tuesday's primaries were equally sobering for the Republican leadership. Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader in the Senate, was also clipped badly after the candidate he overtly supported in a Senate primary in his own state of Kentucky went down to Rand Paul, a political novice whose father is Ron Paul, a former fringe presidential candidate of Texas. Mr Paul was pushed to run and supported by the Tea Party.
Some see the makings of a civil war now in the Republican camp as the Tea Party movement grows bolder. While most self-described partiers abhor the policies of President Obama, accusing him of expanding government and spending recklessly, they accuse Republicans in Washington of complicity. For centrist, moderate Republican incumbents, in particular, the fear of annihilation in November is growing daily.
Mr Paul, a doctor, yesterday threw down the gauntlet to President Obama, daring him to travel to Kentucky before November to campaign on behalf of the Democrat he must now beat, Jack Conway. "We're licking our chops at running against President Obama," he said, saying Mr Obama is "so far to the left, he's not popular in Kentucky".
"It's a tremendous mandate for the Tea Party," Mr Paul told supporters as results showed him crushing his Republican rival, Trey Grayson, 59 per cent to 35 per cent. "It cannot be overstated that people want something new, they don't want the same old, same old politicians." He went on: "I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back."
For Democrats there was one bright note. Their candidate in a special election to fill the House seat once held by John Murtha in south-west Pennsylvania fought off a strong Republican challenger. The result will give Democrats hope that they may be able to limit expected Republican gains in November, not least because the district in Tuesday's race, though traditionally Democrat, had gone for John McCain in 2008.
In Philadelphia, Mr Sestak celebrated a victory that had angered a party leadership that had felt compelled to support the 80-year-old Senator Specter. "This is what democracy looks like," he told joyous supporters Tuesday night. "A win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, DC."
Further underscoring the vulnerability of incumbents and moderates, the Democrat Senator in Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln, just survived a primary contest there but failed to reach the 50 per cent margin required to avoid a run-off.Reuse content