WASHINGTON — When it comes to next year's primaries, three senators probably are feeling a lot like Rodney Dangerfield: They can't get any respect.
As veteran lawmakers, Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., should be coasting, under normal circumstances, to the general election. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., appointed in January as Hillary Rodham Clinton's successor, has the White House's backing.
Yet each has party challengers clamoring for a primary fight in 2010. That's unusual in the Senate, where incumbents typically sail smoothly into the November vote. It's created awkwardness and tension for party leaders who like to avoid contentious and expensive primary contests.
Specter, a five-term senator, cut his decades-long ties with the Republican Party in April and became a Democrat in a state that Barack Obama won handily in the presidential election. Bunning is a Hall of Fame pitcher with two terms under his belt. Gillibrand, 42, is the Senate's youngest member.
Hard economic times, however, are stirring discontent about politics as usual, which opens the door for challengers, said Clay Richards, who recently retired as a pollster at Quinnipiac University.
"The economy is just catching up with these people who so far have been able to survive," Richards said.
In New York, former President Bill Clinton headlined a fundraiser last week for Gillibrand's likely challenger, Rep. Carolyn Maloney. That was seen as a poke at Obama, who has endorsed Gillibrand.
It's turned messy in Pennsylvania.
Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell suggested in a radio interview that Philadelphia-area Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral, shouldn't challenge Specter. Sestak answered with a sharp statement: "We have to ask ourselves, what would happen if our leaders only stood up to challenges when the odds were in their favor?"
A recent Senate vote on gun control showed how Specter and Gillibrand are trying to nail down support from party liberals, who are most inclined to turn out in a primary. Each senator had earned a top rating from the National Rifle Association in 2008. Yet on Wednesday, each voted against letting people carry hidden guns in 48 states if they have a concealed weapon permit in any of those states.
Bunning is in a league of his own when it comes to re-election turmoil.
His refusal to retire has been a headache for fellow Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican. Bunning, 77, is considered the GOP's most vulnerable senator, and the latest election filings show that from April through June, he raised less than half the total of Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a 37-year-old potential primary candidate.
Grayson insists he will get in only if Bunning gets out. Still, Grayson has continued to raise money and hire campaign staff. Bunning blames party leaders for his lackluster fundraising, and he and McConnell barely speak.
Gillibrand jumped from the House to the Senate thanks to an appointment by Gov. David Paterson, D-N.Y. He named her to the seat after Caroline Kennedy withdrew from consideration.
At the time, Gillibrand was a little-known House member from upstate New York, elected in 2006. Her appointment was resented by some in the more liberal wing of the party who didn't like her more moderate views on issues such as guns.
Obama asked Rep. Steve Israel not to challenge Gillibrand, so he stepped aside, as have others.
It's not something Maloney, 61, a nine-term member from Manhattan, has indicated she's willing to do. An adviser has said she will soon announce her candidacy. Polls have showed the matchup is close.
Maloney recently apologized for using the N-word during an interview when she was relaying a story as it was told to her.
When Specter switched parties, he said it was a move partly intended to avoid a rematch in the GOP primary against the more conservative Pat Toomey, 47, a former Republican House member who nearly beat Specter in 2004. Specter was warmly embraced into the party by Rendell and Obama.
But not all Democrats were as welcoming. Specter soon found himself with a likely opponent in the Democratic primary. Sestak has recently visited Pennsylvania's 67 counties, and is expected to formalize his candidacy soon.
Sestak, 57, seeks to portray himself as the true Democrat best poised to help the state long term. Specter released a Web ad accusing him of missing votes to campaign "for a promotion."
A Quinnipiac University poll this past week showed Specter leading Sestak among Democratic voters, but in a close race with Toomey among all Pennsylvanians.
Formidable primary opposition for sitting senators is uncommon but not unheard of. In 2006, Sen. Joe Lieberman lost Connecticut's Democratic primary to businessman Ned Lamont, as part of a wave of discontent over the Iraq war. Lieberman later won the general election as an independent.
Lieberman was one of four senators to lose a primary in the past 15 years.