Embattled Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln eked out a victory against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in their runoff election Tuesday, overcoming an anti-incumbent tide in one of several high-profile elections that could change the partisan landscape in Congress and state capitals from coast to coast come November.
In South Carolina, Republican gubernatorial hopeful and “tea party” favorite Nikki Haley was forced into a runoff election Tuesday, despite crushing her nearest primary rival and deflecting accusations of marital infidelity in one of the year’s nastiest races.
Key battles were also decided in the Republican primaries for Senate and governor in California and in the Nevada GOP Senate primary for the right to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Tuesday’s election results in a dozen states should give party leaders and pollsters a better sense of how the political winds are blowing in an election season already filled with surprises, including the primary defeats of two sitting senators.
Mrs. Lincoln, who trailed in the final polls ahead of Tuesday’s runoff, won 52 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. Halter’s 48 percent. She will face Republican Rep. John Boozman in the general election.
Mrs. Lincoln was able to avoid becoming the third incumbent senator this year to lose a seat in an intraparty contest, in the wake of losses by Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah, who were shown the door by their parties’ voters this spring.
Mrs. Lincoln was forced into a primary runoff after edging out Mr. Halter by two percentage points in a May primary in which neither candidate received 50 percent of the vote.
The moderate incumbent had the backing of President Obama and received considerable campaign help from Arkansas Democrats’ favorite son, former President Bill Clinton. Mr. Halter was backed strongly by labor unions and liberal groups unhappy with Mrs. Lincoln’s stands on health care and labor law reform.
“I think this race became bigger than me and bigger than Bill Halter,” Mrs. Lincoln told the Associated Press Tuesday night. “It became about whether or not the people of Arkansas, who are great people, were going to continue to be hammered by special interest groups that simply wanted to manipulate them and their vote.”
In the final days of the campaign, Mrs. Lincoln’s campaign increasingly relied on an advertisement from Mr. Clinton that warned about special interests.
“This is about using you and manipulating your votes,” Mr. Clinton said in an ad that featured a clip of a speech he made at a rally for Mrs. Lincoln last month.
In the race to replace South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, voters apparently were unperturbed by assertions by two men that they had engaged in extramarital trysts with Mrs. Haley, charges that she and her husband strongly deny.
Mrs. Haley, a state House member, lead a field of four primary candidates with 49 percent of the vote — 27 percentage points better than second-place finisher Rep. J. Gresham Barret. But she fell short of the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a June 22 runoff with Mr. Barrett.
Mrs. Haley had support from “tea party” activists and the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
“We knew from the beginning it was us vs. the establishment,” Mrs. Haley said Tuesday night while addressing a room of supporters, according to the State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. “We were settling (in South Carolina) for a Republican House, a Republican Senate, a Republican governor. I won’t stop until we get a conservative House, a conservative Senate, a conservative governor.”