At the risk of stating the obvious, last night's primaries seemed to reveal a deep resentment nationwide for incumbents and the perceived political establishment.
In Kentucky, the Tea Party candidate beat the Republican supported by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell. In Pennsylvania, Democrats rejected former Republican Arlen Specter's attempt to win the nomination of his new party, opting for two-term Congressman Joe Sestak. In Arkansas, moderate/conservative Democrat Blanche Lincoln had to field a primary challenge from the left, and neither candidate obtained 50% of the vote, meaning they will have a runoff next month.
Anti-elitism, anti-D.C. and anti-incumbency are not new political sentiments. They were at work in 2006 and 2008. Their fervor has continued to rise in the last year, and last night seemed to indicate that it will target both parties. However, by far the strongest evidence of its power is on the right. Rand Paul's win was unequivocal. Republican primary voters essentially opted for a libertarian instead of a Republican, bucking the recommendation of their state's senior senator.
Paul's message wasn't simply that the Republican Party had strayed from its principles, it was that a new party is coming to town: The Tea Party. That presents the GOP with an electoral problem, in that it may face increasing Tea Party challenges in three-way races. But it also threatens the party with a long-term issue of control over its ranks. No GOP leader wants to deal with a guy like Rand Paul in his caucus.
For the Democrats the picture was more ambiguous. Sure, Specter lost, but much of his loss must be attributed to the fact that he hasn't been a Democrat 95 percent of his Senate career and he was running in a Dem primary! And Arkansas was also a unique case. Blanche Lincoln has been a pretty conservative Democrat during her time in the Senate. Appropriate for her constituency, perhaps, but inevitably asking for a challenger who will claim to be a "real Democrat."
What Joe Sestak and Bill Halter were running on was a more aggressive Democratic agenda in D.C., and more aggressive support for the Obama administration's policies. The White House supported the incumbents because that's what it was supposed to do, however, with polls showing Sestak has a better shot in the general election than Specter, you can bet D.C. Democrats feel no regrets over Specter's forced retirement.
The best news for Dems comes out of Pennsylvania, where for the Congressional seat left open by the late John Murtha (D). The district had voted for McCain in 2008. This is more evidence that the anti-incumbency trend is not overwhelming local factors or party affiliation.