Reporting from Louisville, Ky. — With anger all around, voters in three states will signal on Tuesday the depth of the country's anti-establishment mood, which threatens lawmakers in both parties and raises prospects for an even more polarized Congress after November.
On the left, two veteran U.S. senators, Democrats Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, are fighting for political survival, despite the support of party leaders from President Obama on down. Their opponents say neither is a true Democrat.
On the right, the hand-picked candidate of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader on Capitol Hill, is struggling to rally against a "tea party" insurgent who spends nearly as much time criticizing Republicans as he does Democrats. Rand Paul, son of presidential hopeful Ron Paul and the front-runner in the Senate race, won't even commit to backing McConnell for party leader if elected.
"We'd have to know who his opponent was and discuss it at that time," Paul said.
The Kentucky race will offer the clearest test yet of the loosely knit tea party movement and its small-government, anti-Washington message; unlike other candidates who have tapped tea partyers for support, Paul is one of the movement's founders here in the Bluegrass State.
More broadly, Tuesday's primaries could test Obama's campaign vow to achieve a more harmonious Washington.
Stuart Rothenberg, who analyzes congressional races for his nonpartisan Political Report, said many conservative and liberal activists had one thing in common: unhappiness with the president and Democrats running Congress. One side feels they have gone too far, the other not far enough. The upshot, Rothenberg said: "Both think they need to elect people who are going to be louder, more ideologically motivated and more confrontational."
Working to save what's left of the center, Obama has taped advertisements for both Lincoln and Specter, joining other prominent Democrats — including former President Clinton and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell — in a bid to stave off their primary opponents.
In Arkansas, Lincoln faces Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who has attacked the senator for her equivocal stance on the Democrats' healthcare bill — she provided a key vote for initial passage but opposed the legislation in its final form — and accused her of being too cozy with Wall Street. Polls show Lincoln ahead, but the race is competitive.
In Pennsylvania, Specter switched parties last year after more than 40 years as a Republican, fearing a strong primary challenger from his right. Instead, he got a strong primary challenge from his left: two-term Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, who accuses the five-term senator of political expediency.
"Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job," says a scathing TV spot, which helped Sestak pull even with the senator in polls. "His…. Not yours."
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania will also hold a special election to fill the House seat of the late Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha. Mark Critz, a former Murtha aide, is running against Republican businessman Tim Burns, who has sought to tie Critz to his party's unpopular leaders in Washington. The race is too close to call.
The candidate who best exemplifies the anti-establishment message Tuesday is Paul, a tousle-haired eye doctor from Bowling Green who is making his first run for political office.
More libertarian than Republican, Paul, 47, opposes the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, favors legalizing medical marijuana and would leave the issue of same-sex marriage up to individual states. He swears he would close the Department of Education, oppose any budget that was not balanced and seek no earmarks for Kentucky — a brave stance in a poor state that has long counted on the longevity of its lawmakers to bring federal dollars home.
"Money should be spent based on the objective nature of a project, not the seniority of senators," Paul said in an interview. " Robert Byrd has been there 50 years and paved every inch of West Virginia," he went on, referring to the senior member of the Senate. "That's not a good way to run your government."
Paul's main opponent is square-jawed, buttoned-down Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state and a former corporate lawyer from the Cincinnati suburbs. He was tapped by McConnell, who helped shove the state's junior senator, Jim Bunning, into retirement because Grayson seemed more electable. His list of endorsements includes former Vice President Dick Cheney and ex-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Grayson is cut from standard-issue Republican cloth, favoring lower taxes and smaller government. But he and his allies have mostly sought to discredit Paul, who holds a steady double-digit lead in polls, by highlighting some of the more provocative notions he shares with his father — among them, a suggestion that America's foreign policy was at least partly to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.