Political novice Rand Paul rode support from tea party activists to victory in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary Tuesday night, delivering a jolt to the GOP establishment and providing fresh evidence of widespread voter discontent in a turbulent midterm election season.
Paul had 59 percent of the vote — with returns counted from 29 percent of the precincts — to 37 percent for Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who had been recruited to run by the state's dominant Republican, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In a Democratic primary that commanded far less national attention, Attorney General Jack Conway led Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, 49 percent to 39 percent.
On the busiest primary night of the year so far, Democratic Sens. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas struggled uncertainly for nomination to new terms.
In a fourth race with national implications, Republican Tim Burns and Democrat Mark Critz vied to fill out the final few months in the term of the late Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania. Each political party invested nearly $1 million in that contest and said the race to succeed the longtime Democratic lawmaker was something of a bellwether for the fall.
In Oregon, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden faced little opposition for nomination to a third full term.
Voters in Pennsylvania and Oregon also selected gubernatorial candidates.
In Kentucky, Grayson had the support of McConnell as well as other establishment figures. But Paul countered with endorsements — and the political energy that flowed along with them — from tea party activists, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a conservative eager to push his party rightward in advance of the broader fall campaign.
Eager to avoid long-term fallout from a bruising primary, GOP leaders set a unity breakfast for Saturday.
The Kentucky Senate seat is one of 10 or more that appear likely to remain competitive until Election Day, and one that Republicans can ill afford to lose if they are to make a serious run at challenging the Democratic majority. The seat is now held by Sen. Jim Bunning, but McConnell was so concerned about Bunning's ability to win a new term that he muscled the two-term lawmaker to the sidelines and recruited Grayson to run.
Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul, a former GOP presidential contender, entered the race with other ideas.
The far-flung races took place a little less than five months before midterm elections in which Republicans will challenge Democrats for control of both houses of Congress. President Barack Obama backed incumbents in his party's races, but despite the stakes for his legislative agenda the White House insisted he was not following the results very closely.
Whatever the fate of the parties, public opinion polls — and the defeat of two veteran lawmakers in earlier contests — already had turned the campaign into a year of living dangerously for incumbents.
High unemployment, an economy just now emerging from the worst recession in generations and Congress' decision to bail out Wall Street giants in 2008 all added to voters' unease, polls said. In a survey released shortly before the polls closed, ABC said voter expectations for the economy had turned optimistic for the first time in six years. At that, only 33 percent of those polled said so in the network's polling, compared with 29 percent saying the opposite.
Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, a conservative judged not sufficiently so by tea party activists and other critics, was denied a spot on the primary ballot earlier this month in his state. He has flirted with running as a write-in but has not yet announced any plans.
In West Virginia, Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan fell in a primary to an opponent who highlighted ethics issues.
Specter dueled with Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, an 80-year-old party-switching veteran against a younger opponent in a frequent swing state in national campaigns.
Specter sought his sixth term, and first in his new party. Sestak tagged him as an opportunist, airing an ad that showed Specter saying he had abandoned the Republican Party so he could win re-election.
"Politicians are like diapers. They both should be changed regularly," Marc Coleman 41, of Philadelphia, said as he cast his vote.
But across the state in Pittsburgh, Stephen Little, 48, said he sided with the incumbent. "He's been there so long, he's familiar with all the areas and information," he said.
Former Rep. Pat Toomey had little opposition in his bid for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania.
In Arkansas, Lincoln's primary foe was Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a race that took on trappings of a clash of outside interests. Records on file with the Federal Election Commission showed outside groups had spent nearly $10 million to sway the outcome.
Lincoln positioned herself as an independent-minded Democrat not beholden to her party. Halter's campaign was backed by labor unions unhappy with Lincoln's opposition to a government option under health care, legislation making it easier for unions to organize and trade legislation. Little Rock businessman D.C. Morrison also ran.
Among Republicans, Rep. John Boozman took on eight lesser-known rivals for party nomination to the Senate.
Arkansas state law provides for a primary runoff on June 8 if no one achieves a majority.
In Oregon, Republicans chose among seven contenders for the nomination to oppose Wyden.
Also in Oregon, former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber campaigned for his party's nomination for a return to office, and nine Republicans competed for the right to run against him.
In Pennsylvania's gubernatorial primary, four Democrats and two Republicans vied for spots on the November ballot.
As if primaries weren't enough, both parties had other concerns.
Rep. Mark Souder, a conservative Republican from Indiana, abruptly announced he would resign on Friday, admitting he had had an affair with a woman on his congressional payroll. Democrats said his resignation would make the seat competitive in the fall.
And Democrat Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general running for the Senate, disputed a newspaper report that he once lied about his Vietnam record. Republicans focused on the report, hoping it would increase their chances of winning the seat.
Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Connecticut and Tom Davies and Deanna Martin in Indiana contributed to this report.
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