Tuesday Primary Races Test Incumbents
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The political landscape may look a little different by the end of the day. Today is primary day in four states. There's a special election for a House seat in Pennsylvania, and voters are picking nominees for key Senate races in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky. Also today, a conservative Indiana congressman suddenly resigned.
And joining us to talk about all of these things are NPR political correspondents Mara Liasson and Don Gonyea. And first, Mara, what do we hope to learn from tonight's results?
MARA LIASSON: Well, Robert, we hope to get some clues about the depths of the anti-incumbent sentiment out there, the strength of the anti-Democratic and anti-Obama sentiment. We also want to get some clues about the power of the Tea Party, the pull of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell versus South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. We're going to, hopefully, learn something about the clout of labor unions and about the strength of the Ed Rendell machine in Pennsylvania. I don't think we're going to get a roadmap to November out of these elections, but I bet we'll get some signposts.
SIEGEL: Well, Don Gonyea, you've been in Pennsylvania these past few weeks. I want you tell us, first, about the special election to succeed the late and legendary Representative John Murtha.
DON GONYEA: This is Pennsylvania 12. It's on the west side of the state. This is a conservative district, but it has been Democrat since 1974 because of Murtha. Murtha was the king at bringing home the bacon. You drive around the district and there are defense contractors that are there because of Murtha. There's any number of public buildings that stand because of John Murtha. Now, running to replace him is Democrat Mark Critz, who worked for Murtha as a district manager. He was a longtime aide. And he is saying, while he's not Murtha - nobody is - he knows the district. He knows the people. He's been working with him. He'll continue that legacy.
GOP businessman Tim Burns is on the other side. He, too, honors Murtha because you have to here, but he is critical of earmarks, of big government and what he calls the radical Obama-Pelosi agenda.
SIEGEL: And that's the Pennsylvania House race. The Senate race, of course, features a Democratic primary between Arlen Specter, now the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, and his challenger, Congressman Joe Sestak.
GONYEA: That's right. And Specter long held a huge lead in the polls here, as much as 20 points. Again, that was for last year and a good chunk of this year. He has the big endorsements: President Obama, Governor Rendell, the AFL-CIO. Joe Sestak, the congressman who is challenging Specter, was the upstart. He has been wooing progressive Democrats. And lo and behold, something happened in the past few weeks. The polls narrowed. It is now a dead heat.
SIEGEL: Mara, what about Arkansas, the other state where there's a Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln, who's being challenged from the left?
LIASSON: That's right. The unions and liberal groups don't like Blanche Lincoln. They decided to back Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. She will probably win the primary. But the big question is will she get over 50 percent, which is what she needs to avoid a runoff election on June 8th. If she's forced into a runoff, that gives Halter three extra weeks to make his case against her.
There's also another race, a Republican senatorial primary in Kentucky where the establishment candidate is on the ropes. That's Secretary of State Trey Grayson. He has the backing of Mitch McConnell, the highest ranking Republican in Washington, the Senate minority leader.
His opponent, Rand Paul, is backed by the Tea Parties and by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who's been working very hard to elect more purely conservative Republicans to the Senate. And right now, Rand Paul is way ahead.
SIEGEL: Rand Paul, of course, the son of Ron Paul. Now, another bit of political news today. A veteran Indiana Republican, Congressman Mark Souder, acknowledged that he had an affair with a staff member and announced that he was resigning from the House. Here's what he said.
Congressman MARK SOUDER (Republican, Indiana): To serve has been a blessing and a responsibility given from God. I wish I could have been a better example.
SIEGEL: So, Mara, another incumbent is out?
LIASSON: Another incumbent is out. This is a Republican-leaning district, so not necessarily a Democratic pickup opportunity in November. But Souder, as you heard, was a conservative Christian. Now, he's admitted to an affair. And to, kind of, add to the yuck factor of all this, he even recorded an abstinence video with the staffer in question, and I think this will just confirm the negative feelings of voters about incumbents and how hypocritical and out of touch they are.
SIEGEL: Okay. Mara, Don, thanks to both of you.
GONYEA: It's a pleasure.
LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: NPR political correspondents Mara Liasson here in Washington and Don Gonyea speaking to us from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
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