Four States Hold Primaries, One House Election

Intensely competitive Senate primary races in three states Tuesday will test the durability of incumbent Democratic senators in Arkansas and Pennsylvania and the strength of the conservative tea party movement to shake up the Republican establishment in Kentucky.

In a fourth race of national significance, Republican Tim Burns and Democrat Mark Critz battled to fill out the term of the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in a congressional district in southwestern Pennsylvania. Both political parties reported spending roughly $1 million to sway the race, turning it into a laboratory for the campaign for the November election when control of Congress will be at stake.

Competing economic prescriptions, the appeal of President Barack Obama's health care legislation, the Republicans' ability to woo crossover support from independents and Democrats all are at issue in the House race, according to officials in both parties.

Oregon voters also faced a deadline for returning ballots in a statewide mail-in vote that began more than two weeks ago.

On the eve of the busiest primary night of the year so far, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that President Barack Obama was following the races, but "not that closely."

"We have supported incumbent Democratic senators and we've done a lot on behalf of each campaign," he added, referring to Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.

It was not clear what impact Obama's involvement would mean for the incumbents, under extraordinary political pressure in a year of well-documented voter dissatisfaction with Washington.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made no attempt to minimize his own interest in the Senate race in Kentucky to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning. McConnell made a late television commercial on behalf of Secretary of State Trey Grayson, battling Rand Paul, who has the backing of the grassroots conservative tea party movement.

A spokesman, Don Stewart, said McConnell was watching the race in his home state closely.

While Grayson had support from the state's Republican establishment, Paul countered with backing from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, retiring Sen. Jim Bunning and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. DeMint has interceded in several primaries in hopes of pushing his party to the right.

Paul, the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, embraced the support from tea party activists. The tea party movement complains about unchecked government spending, excessive taxation and what they consider the dangerous spread of governmental influence throughout American life.

The movement's name is taken from the 1773 Boston Tea Party, a protest in which activists in the then-British colonies in America boarded ships and threw their cargo of English tea into Boston Harbor in a symbolic protest against taxes.

Among Democrats, Kentucky Attorney Gen. Jack Conway collided with Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo for the right to take on the Republican winner. Mongiardo lost a close race to Bunning six years ago.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter, 80, quit the Republicans and joined the Democrats a year ago and drew the support of Obama, organized labor and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell as he set out to win a sixth term, his first as a Democrat.

But Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral, grabbed late momentum with a television commercial that showed his rival receiving a glowing endorsement from President George W. Bush in the 2004 campaign and saying he had switched parties so he could win re-election. Late polls showed a highly competitive race.

Former Rep. Pat Toomey, supported by the anti-taxation Club for Growth, campaigned as the prohibitive front-runner for the Republican nomination, six years after losing to Specter in a Republican primary.

In Pennsylvania's gubernatorial primary, four Democrats and two Republicans vied to advance to the fall election. Gov. Ed Rendell, a two-term Democrat, was barred from seeking re-election.

In Arkansas, Lincoln's path to a third term ran into a primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who has the support of several unions who spent heavily in hopes of punishing the incumbent for her votes on health care, trade and union organizing.

A pro-business group, Americans for Job Security, countered with more than $1 million for an ad that purported to "thank" Halter for helping ship jobs overseas.

Late polls showed Lincoln ahead in a multicandidate race, but far from certain of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Rep. John Boozman was the acknowledged Republican front-runner for the Senate nomination for a seat that the Republicans hope to win in November.

In Pennsylvania's gubernatorial primary, four Democrats and two Republicans vied to advance to the fall election. Gov. Ed Rendell, a two-term Democrat, was barred from seeking re-election.

But strategists in both parties focused their attention on the special House election in southwestern Pennsylvania as an indicator of Republican prospects for making big gains in November's election and possibly regaining control of the House of Representatives.

"This is the kind of district that the Republicans have to win if their hype is to even begin to meet the reality on the ground," said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was poking at Republican boasts that the party will win the 40 seats in November that it needs to take power in the House.

The Pennsylvania district is home to more registered Democrats than Republicans. There is a solid working class vote, the result of the area's location in the nation's coal belt. Additionally, opposition to gun control and abortion is strong within both parties. The district supported Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election after siding with Democrats in the previous two races for the White House.

Private polling shows Obama's approval rating in the congressional district in the range of 35 to 40 percent, lower than it is nationally.

The Republican Congressional Campaign's sum-up television ad touches on points the party says it intends to stress in the coming campaign, criticizing runaway federal spending and Obama's "disastrous" health care overhaul.

Democrats have hit back hard on pocketbook issues, including jobs, as they seek to avoid a backlash from voters angry over a steady loss of jobs that has only lately showed signs of abating.

A fourth state, Oregon, picks its nominees for the fall on Tuesday, but Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has not faced serious competition for his party's nomination to a new term.

Former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber campaigned for his party's nomination for a return to office, and nine Republicans competed for the nomination to run against him.