Insurgent Candidates See Electoral Success in Hot Senate Races

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Massive campaign war chests and establishment endorsements were not enough to be victorious in some of the country’s most contested Senate primaries Tuesday night.

One sitting Senator was defeated and another is heading to a run-off in three weeks, as candidates worked to distance themselves from Washington and position themselves as crusaders against special interests in charged anti-incumbent environments.


In Pennsylvania, Democratic voters selected Rep. Joe Sestak to be their nominee, ousting incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who joined the ranks of the Democratic Party last year after more than four decades as a Republican. Going into the campaign’s final stretch, Specter had amassed more than four times as much cash as Sestak — raising $15.4 million for his campaign compared to Sestak’s $3.6 million.

Sestak argued he would better represent Democratic interests, pulled in money from Democratic donors through conduits like ActBlue and defeated Specter by about 8 percentage points.

“This is what democracy looks like,” Sestak said in his victory speech, calling his success “a win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.”

In Kentucky, insurgent Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul — a favorite of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the tea party movement — struck similar rhetorical notes after his 23-percentage-point victory over Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

“This tea party movement is a message to Washington that we’re unhappy and we want things done differently,” Paul said during his victory speech. “We’ve come to take our government back from the special interests who think the federal government is their own personal ATM, from the politicians who bring us over-sized fake checks emblazoned with their signatures like it’s their money to give.”

Grayson was the preferred choice of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), former Vice President Dick Cheney and the Kentucky Republican Party establishment. He had raised more than $2.76 million heading into the election.

However, like his father Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the failed 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Rand Paul was able to cultivate significant sums in online donations. Paul raised $2.7 million as of April 28, with more than 52 percent coming from individuals giving less than $200, the Federal Election Commission threshold for itemized disclosure, as OpenSecrets Blog previously reported.

On the Democratic side of the aisle in Kentucky, Attorney General Jack Conway bested Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who had the backing of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

Mongiardo had held a lead in most polls over the duration of the campaign, but Conway had been closing the gap recently. As of April 28, Conway, however, had out-raised Mongiardo by about $700,000 — $2.7 million to $2 million — and in the final stretch of the campaign, Conway loaned himself $300,000, on top of the $144,000 he had already contributed from his personal funds.

Ultimately Conway, who had campaigned on reforming Wall Street, greater accountability and cutting the deficit, triumphed over Mongiardo by about 1 percentage point.

Finally, in Arkansas, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln failed to secure enough of the Democratic primary vote to avoid a run-off. Arkansas law requires candidates to receive a majority of the vote (50 percent, plus one), not just a plurality.

Lincoln had raised more than three times as much as her closest challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who was supported by many major labor unions and progressive activists.

As of April 28, Lincoln had raised $8.7 million to Halter’s $2.6 million. Yet on Tuesday, she garnered only 2 percent more of the vote than Halter — 44.5 percent to 42.5 percent.

Daniel “D.C.” Morrison, a conservative Democratic challenger, reported raising just $8,650 at the end of March. (Morrison failed to file a pre-primary campaign finance report covering the month of April with the FEC.) Nevertheless, Morrison garnered 13 percent of the vote, helping send Halter and Lincoln into a run-off on June 8.

In Arkansas’ eight-way Republican Senate primary, Rep. John Boozman secured about 53 percent of the vote and avoided a run-off election.

The Democratic establishment had invested heavily in Specter and Lincoln’s successes.

While President Barack Obama did not personally campaign in the final stretch for either Specter or Lincoln, he endorsed both, produced “robo-calls” for both, his old campaign arm (Organizing for America, which is now run out of the Democratic National Committee) made phone calls for Specter and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee paid for TV ads touting Specter.

Contributions from fellow Democrats in the Senate also combined for significant support.

Lincoln raised more than $300,000 from leadership PACs since 2005 and Specter raised $172,000 from leadership PACs since 2005 — ranking such giving among each senator’s top contributors.

Here is a table of Democratic senators who contributed to Specter and Lincoln since last year through either their leadership PACs or campaign committees, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of campaign finance reports through April 28. As of the most recently filed campaign finance reports, no sitting members of Congress had contributed to either Sestak or Halter via their leadership PACs or campaign committees.

Gave to Lincoln Gave to Specter
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.)
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Sen. Deborah Stabenow (D-Mich.) Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) Sen. Deborah Stabenow (D-Mich.)
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.)
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska)
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.)
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.)
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.)
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.)
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.)
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.)
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)

The Republican establishment had likewise invested heavily in Grayson in Kentucky against Paul. Here is a table of top Republican politicians who made contributions to Gray and Paul since last year through either their campaign committees or leadership PACs, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of campaign finance filings through April 28.

Gave to Grayson Gave to Paul
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) ex-Gov. Sarah Palin
Sen. Christopher ‘Kit’ Bond (R-Mo.) Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.)
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio)
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.)
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah)
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)
ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.)
ex-Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.)
ex-Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.)

Tuesday’s Senate elections also continued a troubling trend for incumbents.

Earlier this month, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) failed to secure enough support from party activists at the Republican Party’s state convection to make it onto the primary ballot, and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) lost to a primary challenger.

And Specter’s lost to Sestak was the latest obstacle to reelection among some of the Senate’s longest serving members seeking reelection.

At the beginning of the 111th Congress, just three senators remained in office who were first elected in 1980: Specter, Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Dodd opted to retire earlier this year amid tough reelection prospects. And Grassley is facing a challenge this November from Democratic attorney Roxanne Conlin.

Only one senator up for reelection has been in office longer, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who was elected in 1974 and does not face a challenger who has raised more than five figures.

In another electoral success for Democrats Tuesday night, the former chief of staff of the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), Mark Critz, defeated Republican Tim Burns in a special election for Murtha’s old seat in western Pennsylvania.

The district is the only district carried by Democrat John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election that Obama did not carry in 2008.

Critz had been out-raised by Burns — $1 million to $748,000, as of April 28. And both national party committees, as well as numerous outside groups, invested sizable sums on independent expenditures in the race.

Ultimately, Critz, a conservative Democrat who favors gun rights and opposes abortion rights, won the district by 8 percentage points.

The race marked the eleventh consecutive special election win for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has not lost a special elections since May of 2008.

Center for Responsive Politics researcher Erin Williams contributed to this report.