Desire For 'Change' Threatens Incumbents

There was a time in politics when the phrase "experience counts" was considered a pretty good campaign slogan. These days experience can be a serious liability. Three Senate primaries coming up next week may say a lot about the ideological divisions within both parties. The races are in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And Im Lynn Neary.

There was a time in politics when the phrase experience counts was considered a pretty good campaign slogan - not so anymore. These days, experience can be a serious liability. In the past several days, two incumbent members of Congress, Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah and Democratic Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia were denied their party's nomination for another term. There are more primaries on Tuesday and incumbents are once again holding their breaths.

We're joined now by our political brain trust, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and political editor Ken Rudin. Good morning to you both.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Lynn.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Lynn.

NEARY: So, Mara, let's start with you. What is behind this anti-incumbent mood thats out there?

LIASSON: Well, a bad economy is one of the big things behind it. People dont like the bailouts. And you know, people have been in a mood for change for quite a while. And the same wave of change that propelled the Democrats into office over the last two election cycles is still there, and now it's being turned against them.

NEARY: And Ken, I've read that the members of Congress who have been responsible for appropriations are some of the most vulnerable. Is that right?

RUDIN: Well, absolutely. If you look at what happened to Bob Bennett in Utah and Alan Mollohan in West Virginia, both them are big on earmarks, both of them voted for TARP programs, things like that. And so the big government, the kind of stuff that would bring money into the district that John Murtha, for example, the late John Murtha of Pennsylvania talked about for so many decades in Congress, now thats a bad thing to talk about. And it's the outsiders that seem to be doing well in these primaries.

NEARY: Let's talk about Pennsylvania. First of all, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania may be the most endangered incumbent. And he was supposed to be a shoe-in, right?

RUDIN: Well, the irony is that he left the Republican Party because he was going to lose the primary there. And when he became a Democrat, he was immediately endorsed by President Obama. He was going to be the guy who was going to carry the Democrats to victory in November.

LIASSON: Yeah, and he's in real danger of losing his primary to Congressman Joe Sestak. And Arlen Specter has really become the epitome, if not the caricature, of the opportunistic politician. When he switched parties, he was very honest. He said I couldnt get re-elected as a Republican. But being an opportunistic politician is the absolute worst thing you can be right now.

NEARY: Talking about Pennsylvania, there's a special election in Western Pennsylvania for a seat long-held by the late John Murtha. Whats going on there, Ken?

RUDIN: Well, right. when John Murtha won the special election in 1974, it sent a signal to Richard Nixon and the Republicans that the GOP was in big trouble. Now, 36 years later, the Republicans would love to return the favor. The Republican, Tim Burns, is saying that, you know, the earmarks are wrong, the Obama socialism is wrong. Scott Brown, the senator from Massachusetts - who knows a thing or two about winning special elections - is campaigning for Tim Burns.

On the Democratic side, they're bringing in Bill Clinton for the Democratic candidate. His name is Mark Critz. Again, this is a Democratic district but if the Republicans can win it, it will send a signal to Democrats that November could be a big trouble for them in the general election.

NEARY: And in Kentucky, Ken, there's no incumbent running in Kentucky. Republican Senator Jim Bunning is retiring. Whats the situation there?

RUDIN: Well, like Pennsylvania, it's a story about the establishment versus the outsiders. The establishment is Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. He is backing the Secretary of State Trey Grayson. But the outsider, the Tea Party favorite, is a doctor by the name of Rand Paul, the son of Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.

The Tea Party folks have gotten two big victories in the last couple of weeks. Theyve forced Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party in Florida, and they beat Bob Bennett in Utah. They would love to teach the establishment a lesson with Rand Paul in Tuesday's primary.

LIASSON: And the interesting thing there is another sitting Republican senator, Jim DeMint, who's become a kind of alternative power center to McConnell. He is endorsing Rand Paul and he's become a real force in a lot of these primaries. And Rand Paul right now is running way ahead of Trey Grayson, and it could end up being a rebuke to the Republican establishment, just like the defeat of Robert Bennett in Utah was too.

RUDIN: And Arlen Specter. If he goes out too, it's a rebuke of the Democratic establishment there.

NEARY: Thanks to both of you. Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent. Ken Rudin is political editor. You can read his Political Junkie blog at NPR.org/junkie. Good to have you both with us.

RUDIN: Thanks, Lynn.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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