Throw the Bums Out!

Rand Paul's win and Arlen Specter's loss show strong anti-establishment currents on both sides. John Avlon on why Congress could get even more polarized.

05.19.10 7:00 AM ET

If you’re an incumbent, be afraid…be very afraid.

That’s the message that voters in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas were sending to Washington on Tuesday’s primary night.

In Kentucky, Tea Party scion Rand Paul picked off Trey Grayson, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate, in a blowout. Paul’s win marks a major milestone in the Tea Party movement’s evolution to elected politics. His victory speech summed up both sides of the movement. The good: he castigated “those special interests who think the federal government is their ATM.” And the bad: he condemned President Obama for attending the Copenhagen climate change summit alongside leftist dictators Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe.

The most indelible message of Election Night was articulated by Joe Sestak in his victory speech: “this is a win for the people over the establishment.”

But there’s no question that Rand Paul rode the Tea Party tidal wave to victory last night over the Republican establishment—and in the process, he set up the possibility of a Ron Paul-ite libertarian dynasty in Congress. Paul will now face Democrat Attorney General Jack Conway in the fall, and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine lost no time in tipping their general election strategy, firing off a press release calling Paul an “extremist” within minutes of his win.

Benjamin Sarlin: A Big Night for the Left

Margaret Carlson: Why Specter Went Down

Samuel P. Jacobs: Will the Insurgents Sell Out?

Mark McKinnon: Three Election Lessons
In Pennsylvania, the ultimate swing state, the swing senator did not fare so well last night. Arlen Specter, the longest serving senator in the Keystone State’s history, was forcibly retired from his four-decade political career in a closed Democratic primary. It was close for much of the night, but the Democratic union machine could not generate enough grassroots enthusiasm to pull the former Republican senator across the finish line. Instead, Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Naval Admiral representing the Philadelphia suburbs, was able to take on the establishment and win. Now the former Club for Growth president Pat Toomey faces a much tougher general election fight on his hands this fall.

In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Democrats beat Republicans by double digits in the only special election held last night. Jack Murtha had held the seat since 1974 and his former aide Mark Critz held onto the seat for the Democrats, despite the fact that it was the only congressional district in the nation that voted for John Kerry in 2004 and then John McCain in 2008. It was a meaningful win in that Democrats held on to a seat many thought would be lost—but expect a rematch this fall.

In Arkansas, centrist Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln failed to hit the 50% benchmark necessary to avoid a June 8th run-off against the state’s lieutenant governor Bill Halter. It was a race that pitted the Chamber of Commerce against and it was a reminder of why centrist Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh declined to run for re-election this year. The center is under attack, not only within Congress and the GOP but within the Democratic Party. Lincoln has won a run-off election before, and a self-styled conservative Democrat took 14% of the vote in the primary, a share of the vote likely to head towards her in the run-off. Nonetheless, a low-turnout, high-intensity run-off could go either way three weeks from now.

Tuesday’s mini super-Tuesday lived up to its billing as bellwether for the fall’s midterm elections. The RINO hunting and DINO hunting impulses are alive and well in both parties, raising the possibility of an even more polarized Congress in the future. Barack Obama seems to be slightly less a lightning rod than the specter of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as Republicans try to build on independent voters’ deficit-hawk impulses and dislike of unified control of Washington. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill Clinton is deployed more often than Obama as a Democratic surrogate in swing states this fall.

While both parties will try to spin Tuesday night as a victory for their fortunes this fall, all incumbents have been put on notice. The anger at both big government and big business is real; small businesses feel forgotten in the shuffle. The most indelible message of Election Night was articulated by Joe Sestak in his victory speech: “this is a win for the people over the establishment.”

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.