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Voters send mixed message in primary

Amid a volatile election cycle dominated by the disgruntled voter, incumbent politicians shared a brief moment of hope as they watched some of their own escape career-ending losses. It was very brief.

The results from primary elections from coast to coast Tuesday offered a tangled, sometimes contradictory view of the edgy electorate that will make the final decisions in national and state elections in November.

There was cause to celebrate for incumbent Democrats as Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln fended off a challenge from her party’s left wing. But there was cause for unease as a solidly conservative House member in South Carolina was forced into a runoff when a “tea party” challenger questioned his far-right credentials.

The fledging anti-tax movement — also a thorn in the side of incumbents and the national leadership of the two major political parties — claimed a victory in Nevada, where a perennial conservative activist won the right to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the fall.

But in far more races, the anti-tax forces failed to coalesce behind particular candidates and wound up splitting their financial support and their vote.

Sharron Angle’s win in Nevada might also be viewed as a victory for Democrats. She has quickly become the symbol of a Republican Party turn to the right — and away from moderate voters — that Democrats hope will help them avoid widespread losses this fall.

Republicans have borne the brunt of the primary-season party shakeups, which may continue through the summer. Tuesday’s balloting will be followed by primaries in Arizona — where 2008 Republican presidential standard-bearer John McCain is fighting a major conservative challenge — and in dozens of other states where the results may only add to the national uncertainty.

So far, four sitting members of Congress have been voted out — Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R- Utah), Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.), Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.). More senior members have retired rather than face tough reelection fights.

But the strength of the anti-establishment undercurrent in both major parties can be measured not just by how many heads roll but by how hard incumbents have to work just to win renomination — not to mention reelection.

For Democrats, the primary season is uncovering a seething undercurrent of frustration among liberals who are disappointed with the Obama administration and its allies in Congress as they have compromised on issues like the public option in healthcare and failed to deliver on promises to end the war in Iraq.

That frustration broke into the public this week in Washington, when a conference of progressives erupted in complaints about President Obama — and even a stalwart liberal like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) was shouted down by protesters.

More important is what has been happening at the ballot box. Liberal populists were a driving force behind the Democratic primary defeat of Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania by Rep. Joe Sestak.

But the marquee battle for liberals and organized labor came in Arkansas, where Lincoln faced a stiff challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. She had come under fire from the liberal base for her opposition to key elements of the healthcare law, legislation to make it harder to break labor unions, and Obama’s nominee for the National Labor Relations Board.

As chairman of the agriculture committee, Lincoln might have been bulletproof in a largely rural state — but she faced a remarkably stiff challenge from the little-known Halter, who was backed by labor and liberal groups that wanted to make a national point that Democrats could not take their support for granted.

Lincoln sought aid from former President Bill Clinton, a figure who by some measures should not have helped her cause. But in his home state, the widely popular Clinton was able to bolster Lincoln’s argument that she stood against special interests in Washington.

“The idea that Lincoln’s win is an indication that incumbents may not be in trouble strikes me on the surface of it as crazy,” said Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer. “She wins by 4 points over a guy backed by unions and MoveOn.org?”

The liberal group cast the race as a sign of how “passionate the progressive base is.”

“This is a marathon, not a sprint; race by race, election by election,” said Ilyse Hogue, campaign director of Moveon.org, which also backed Sestak.

For Republicans, the challenge is avoiding the booby traps of tea party politics.

The local conservative clubs of the young and disjointed movement often align with Republican ideology and promise a source of volunteers and votes. But many in the ranks swear little allegiance to party politics, think nothing of bucking orthodoxy and prize ideological purity over ballot box success.

The movement also has demonstrated fierce internal divisions and only moderate interest to uniting to raise money — limiting its ability mount a large-scale campaign. Its clearest victories have occurred in smaller, less expensive races before a conservative electorate.

That was the case in Georgia’s 9th District, where Tom Graves could be called the tea party’s first elected member of the House. Graves won a special election Tuesday for a seat vacated by another Republican running for higher office.

He enjoyed the support and organization of an especially strong local tea party group, but his victory may do little more than replace one conservative with another. The district is ranked the most conservative in the Eastern time zone.

The tea party movement’s win in Nevada will probably have a more dramatic impact — although perhaps not the one conservatives intended. Angle has staked out several positions that could be hard to make palatable to independent and moderate voters.

Angle has supported the eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, something Democrats will be eager to make her explain as oil is soiling the waters and killing the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico.

On Wednesday, Republican leaders took the unusual approach of issuing a statement declaring support for their own nominee.

“We are solidly behind Sharron Angle and I’m confident that, of course, in the most recent public opinion polls she’s actually leading Harry Reid,” said Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “So I don’t think that this is any day for Harry to be giddy or popping champagne corks.”

janet.hook@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

James Oliphant of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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