Embattled Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas narrowly won nomination to a third term Tuesday night, overcoming a labor-backed challenger and defying a nationwide anti-establishment tide that dealt defeat to Republican Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons and forced a veteran South Carolina congressman into a runoff.
In California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman won the Republican nomination for governor, and another businesswoman, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, led in her bid to become her party's candidate for the Senate.
On the busiest night of the primary year, tea party activists flexed their muscle in South Carolina, pushing state Rep. Nikki Haley ahead of three rivals in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Shy of a majority, she will face Rep. Gresham Barrett in a June 22 runoff.
A second tea party-backed contender, Paul LePage, won the Republican nomination for governor in Maine, and a third, Sharron Angle, led a crowded field for the right to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada in the fall.
In the marquee race of the night, Lincoln had 52 percent of the vote in nearly complete Arkansas returns, to 48 percent for Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
The result marked a stunning defeat for organized labor, which had poured more than $5 million into an effort to dump Lincoln in retaliation for her departure from party orthodoxy on numerous issues. Seemingly headed for defeat in the race's final days, she unleashed a campaign ad that acknowledged voter anger with Washington and also got a boost from former President Bill Clinton, who told voters that out-of-state unions were trying to steal their votes.
Lincoln will meet GOP Rep. John Boozman in November in a race that national Republicans have targeted.
Gibbons wasn't nearly as successful as Lincoln, falling to Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge, after a term marked by a messy public divorce and allegations of infidelity. Rory Reid, Harry Reid's son, won the Democratic nomination.
A third incumbent in trouble, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, trailed challenger Trey Gowdy by double digits but qualified for a runoff on June 22 in the solidly conservative district. The challenger campaigned as an opponent of the 2008 financial bailout legislation that the incumbent supported.
The races took place in the shadow of the worst recession in decades, stubbornly high unemployment, dispiriting day-by-day images of the damage caused by an offshore oil rig disaster and poll after poll that reported the voters angry and eager for a change.
Curiously, given the national mood, a pair of former governors — Republican Terry Branstad in Iowa and Democrat Edmund G. Brown Jr. in California — won nominations that marked successful first steps in efforts to reclaim the power they once held.
Gibbons was the first governor tossed from office in a year of living dangerously for incumbents everywhere.
With her win and his run-off, Lincoln and Inglis avoided joining a list of congressional incumbents sent packing by voters in their own party in earlier contests — Sens. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and Parker Griffith, R-Ala.
"I don't believe very many politicians or very many people on the political scene, so I just had to vote my conscience and my prayers," said Judy Hamilton, a 59-year-old administrative assistant from Columbia, S.C., as she cast her ballot in the state's Republican primary.
That sentiment made the day's balloting a prelude to the fall, when Republicans hope to challenge Democrats for control of Congress and the two parties vie for three dozen statehouses midway through President Barack Obama's term.
In a pair of Virginia congressional districts likely to become fall battlegrounds, Republicans chose Scott Rigell and Robert Hurt to challenge Democratic freshmen Reps. Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello.
And in Georgia, Republican Tom Graves, running with tea party support, won a special election to fill out the final few months left in the term of former GOP Rep. Nathan Deal. who resigned to run for governor.
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