WASHINGTON (AP) - Dazed and confused. The biggest primary night of the season left the two parties struggling Wednesday to figure out their next steps in an increasingly volatile election year.
House Republicans tried to explain their costly defeat in a special election in Pennsylvania, a contest they had hoped would launch them toward big gains in November's midterm elections. President Barack Obama failed for a fifth time to push Democratic choices to victory, a troubling sign for the White House.
Despite the White House support, Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff with union-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in Arkansas and is clinging to her political life. Arlen Specter saw his long Senate career end altogether with Joe Sestak's nomination in Pennsylvania.
Tea party activists scored a big victory in Kentucky, rejecting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand-picked GOP nominee - Trey Grayson - for the state's other Senate seat in favor of political upstart Rand Paul.
In several states, voters flocked to self-described outsiders at a time when support for Congress is low, anger at Washington high and backing for Obama divided.
However, the themes that surfaced in Tuesday's disparate primaries may tell little about the likely outcomes of upcoming primaries in other states, much less how the general election in some five months will play out. More clear is that this is shaping up to be a raucous campaign season, with colliding variables and a host of unknowns.
While public attention focused on the Senate races, party leaders eyed the Pennsylvania House result.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, predicted a GOP takeover of the House this fall, although he said the loss in Pennsylvania was "evidence of the fact that we have a lot of work to do and we can't get ahead of ourselves."
Countered Tim Kaine, the Democratic Party chairman: "The party's failure to take a seat also shows that while conventional wisdom holds that this cycle will be tough for Democrats, the final chapter on this year's elections is far from written."
A Republican victory for that Pennsylvania House seat would have advanced the party's claims that major gains are certain this fall, and a takeover of the House is possible - a narrative officials had hoped to reinforce this Saturday in a special election to fill out the term of former Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii.
In Hawaii, Republican Charles Djou runs ahead in the polls while two Democrats split a preponderance of their party's vote. Despiteefforts at diplomacy, neither former Rep. Ed Case nor Colleen Hanabusa has agreed to withdraw, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently announced it was halting its activity in the race after spending more than $300,000.
But what does it all mean? It's an unpredictable political environment in which Republicans will seek to take control of Congress this fall and Democrats will try to curtail losses. Some GOP gains are expected because Obama's party is the one in power at a time when the economy continues to sputter and joblessness persists. Those economic issues are voters' top concerns.
"The message clearly is that they're tired of business as usual in Washington, regardless of party. ... The people want new faces and new fresh ideas," Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who rode a wave of voter anger to office in January, said in an interview.
Kaine deflected questions about whether Obama's political influence was waning, saying that after the primaries are over in states "that's when you'll see the president going in." He ignored the fact that over the past seven months Democratic candidates Obama campaigned for or supported in other ways lost gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, fell to Brown in Massachusetts, lost the Senate primary in Pennsylvania and ended up in an Arkansas runoff.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who leads the Senate Democrats' campaign efforts, said of the president: "Hopefully, he can continue to create a greater contrast between the Democratic vision and the Republican one" while also continuing fundraising and campaign appearances.
Lincoln's run-off as well as the defeats of Specter and Grayson also raised questions of whether political parties – the establishment in elections - are losing power and, if so, what that means for coalition building and the influence of outside groups, if not for democracy.
Seeing tea party activists successfully sidestep the will of leaders in Washington, voters could increasingly turn to the Internet to air grievances, mobilize and force change. Certainly, candidates nominated without their party's support owe little or nothing to their party leaders and, thus, it may become tougher to build coalitions to get things done on Capitol Hill.
And big-monied special interest groups might just be emboldened by Halter's success so far to overtake the traditional party roles of recruiting and funding candidates.
Union leaders who nudged Halter into the Arkansas race vowed to carry him to victory in the runoff over Lincoln. Said AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman: "We are certainly ready and able to spend whatever we need to spend on behalf of Halter."
Organized labor has already spent more than $5 million to oust Lincoln, a moderate who angered unions by opposing legislation to make it easier for workers to organize and working to kill a government insurance option in health care legislation that passed Congress.
As Lincoln and Halter duke it out, the Republican nominee, Rep. John Boozman can refill his campaign coffers and plan strategy for the fall in a race the GOP has long targeted.
Less than 24 hours after the primaries, the shape of the fall campaign was quick to form.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans rolled out a new website and video against Sestak, pointing out that the congressman votes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats most of the time and was endorsed by the progressive MoveOn.org. "Just how liberal is Joe Sestak?" the spot asks and answers: "Way too liberal for Pennsylvania."
In Kentucky, Democrats portrayed Paul as out of touch. They released a video that contrasts the state's 10.7 percent unemployment with Paul's calls to eliminate the Education Department and corporate taxes. The video also highlights his opposition to curtailment of Medicare payments to doctors; he's an eye doctor.
"The one payment Paul doesn't want to cut is his own salary," says the video that claims Paul is "against helping Kentuckians" but "for helping himself."
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