The Pitchfork Primaries: Will Washington Get the Message?

A handpicked successor is rejected, an old lion becomes roadkill, and a powerful Senator is forced into a runoff. The first contests of 2010 prove a rebellion is brewing. But is Washington listening?

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L. to r.: William Thomas Cain / Getty Images; Ed Reinke / AP

L. to R.: Supporters of Senator Arlen Specter cheer as he arrives for a campaign stop; A supporter holds a drink as he waits for the appearance of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul

The Kelly green golf course, the limpid lap pool, the khaki slacks and crisp sundresses all seemed to murmur Establishment, but unhappiness is so widespread this year that revolutions are stirring in the strangest places. At a country club in Bowling Green, Ky., a handsome ophthalmologist named Rand Paul lobbed another missile Tuesday night toward the battered fortress of Washington's elite. "I have a message, a message from the Tea Party," Paul announced after crushing the old guard's favored candidate for his state's Republican Senate nomination. "A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back."

Before the votes were counted May 18 in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, a few jaded members of the capital's insider clique — the Permanent Party — still sniffed that they'd heard all this before. In 1994, in 1980, in 1966. Someone's always coming to take the government back. Ho-hum.

But no one was yawning the morning after, as the insistent notes of rebellion throbbed on the hollow drum of official power. The natives are restless. Americans of all persuasions at last agree on something. It is a message to their leaders that starts with F and ends with u. In Kentucky, the cream of the GOP — Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, former Vice President Dick Cheney, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — all backed a fellow named Trey Grayson against newcomer Paul. They got the message loud and clear. In the other party, Barack Obama's stamp of approval meant diddly to the Democrats of Pennsylvania and Arkansas, where outsider candidates ended the 30-year Senate career of Arlen Specter and pushed Blanche Lincoln, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, limping into a runoff.

Credit Obama with a well-tuned nose for trouble. He spent Election Day far from the Oval Office and far from Specter and Lincoln too, touring an 85-ton electric arc furnace in Youngstown, Ohio, in search of an alibi. "It's just nice to get out of Washington," he said understatedly.

There was a lonely bleat of cluelessness from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). This electioneering arm of the House leadership congratulated itself on a triumph in the special election to replace the late master of pork, Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania. Marie Antoinette had nothing on it. Could the DCCC really have missed the fact that Mark Critz held onto the seat by opposing health care reform, denouncing cap and trade, embracing the gun culture and standing against abortion? If Speaker Nancy Pelosi drank Coke, Critz would have campaigned in a Pepsi truck. Earth to House leadership: That's not a vote of confidence.

The wave of anti-incumbent, anti-Washington energy is more than just a reaction to 9.9% unemployment and one-party rule and more than the customary cycle of off-year voting behaviors. It has been brewing through a decade or more of rising uncertainty and declining confidence. In 2002, during another off-year election in the shadow of a recession, the Harris Poll found that a mere 22% of Americans had great faith in Congress and only 19% strongly trusted Wall Street. This year the number is 8% for both. Same vibe, greater intensity — and further multiplied by the do-it-yourself culture of online organizing.

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