- - Tuesday, June 8, 2010

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.”

Mr. Barrett, in a speech to his supporters in downtown Greenville, S.C. said he is prepared for the runoff battle, the newspaper reported.

“We’re in the runoff, and I’m excited about that,” he said. “Now, we’ve got two weeks. We’re going to finish strong, and we’re going to make history.”

Elsewhere in South Carolina, veteran incumbent Republican Rep. Bob Inglis headed toward a runoff with Spartanburg County Solicitor Trey Gowdy, with Mr. Gowdy actually outpolling Mr. Inglis.

California Republicans took an historic step Tuesday by nominating two wealthy businesswomen to challenge Democratic icons for governor and Senate.

Meg Whitman, the billionaire former eBay chief executive, easily won the Republican primary for California governor, while former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also had a easy time defeating four opponents for the right to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in the fall.

It’s the first time California Republicans have put a woman — much less two — at the top of their ticket in the nation’s most populous state.

In a testy Nevada Republican Senate primary, former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle easily defeated her main opponents: one-time front-runner Sue Lowden, who was widely mocked for suggesting consumers use chickens to barter with doctors, and Danny Tarkanian, the son of famed University of Nevada, Las Vegas former basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Ms. Angle, another tea party favorite, has won the right to challenge one of Washington’s most powerful lawmakers — Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid — in November.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Ms. Angle’s victory means the seat is a “prime pick-up opportunity for our party in November.”

“From day one, the Nevada Senate race has been a referendum on Harry Reid and his divisive, partisan, out-of-touch record in Washington,” Mr. Cornyn said in a prepared statement.

Mr. Cornyn’s Democratic counterpart, Democratic Senatorial Congressional Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, had a different view, saying that Ms. Angle “cares more about promoting a strict social doctrine than helping grow the state’s economy.”

Many pollsters say the Nevada Senate race is a toss up, though Mr. Reid holds a significant cash-on-hand lead over Ms. Angle and Democrats enjoy an 8-percent party registration advantage.

Nevada Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons won four years ago despite accusations of accosting a nightclub waitress and marital infidelity. But on Tuesday he became the state’s first governor to lose his party’s nomination as challenger Brian Sandoval trounced him by a whopping 28 percentage points.

Mr. Sandoval, a former federal judge, now takes on Mr. Reid’s son, Rory Reid, a Clark County commissioner, in the general election.

In Virginia, Republicans think they have three strong candidates to run against three vulnerable freshman Democratic House members. Virginia Beach auto dealer E. Scott Rigell will take on 2nd District Rep. Glenn Nye, state Sen. Robert Hurt will run against Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello in the 5th District, and Oakton businessman Keith Fimian defeated Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity to earn a rematch with Rep. Gerald E. Connolly in Northern Virginia’s 11th District.

In the Iowa Republican gubernatorial primary, former Gov. Terry Branstad defeated Bob Vander Plaats by 10 percentage points. Mr. Branstad won the endorsement of Mrs. Palin, while Mr. Vander Plaats had received support from some tea party advocates and conservative religious broadcaster James Dobson.

Mr. Branstad in November will face Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, who ran unopposed.

The retirement of North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan has put his seat in play. Republican Gov. John Hoeven and Democratic state Sen. Tracy Potter won their parties’ nominations on Tuesday, with Mr. Hoeven well ahead in hypothetical November matchups.

Incumbents this year are particularly mindful that unlike past elections experience is no guarantee to getting re-elected, and in many cases has been a liability.

Only 26 percent of the public approves of the way Congress is doing its job, according to the results of a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week.

The survey also found that only 29 percent of Americans say they are inclined to support their House representative in November. The findings are even lower than in 1994, when voters swept the Democrats out of power in that chamber after 40 years in the majority.

But the poll also finds growing disapproval of the tea party movement. Forty-nine percent of the survey’s respondents say they have an unfavorable impression of the protest movement — 10 percentage points higher than the Post-ABC poll from late March.

Valerie Richardson contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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