Primary Voters Head To Polls Coast To Coast

NPR's Mara Liasson talks to Robert Siegel about the primaries taking place around the country on Tuesday. Voters in California, Nevada and Arkansas are choosing candidates for high-profile Senate races, and voters in nine other states are heading to the polls.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Voters go to the polls in 12 states today, choosing candidates for the elections this fall. In Arkansas, an incumbent Democrat faces a serious challenge. California and Nevada will pick challenges for key Senate races. Voters there, as well as in South Carolina and several other states, will also nominate gubernatorial candidates. In all, there are 10 state primaries and two runoffs in the biggest election night of the season so far.

And here to help us sort through it all is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi.

MARA LIASSON: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the big picture. This has been an unusually active midterm election season. What struck you about the campaign so far?

LIASSON: It's been incredibly active. We have a record number of candidates; 2,300 people have filed to run this year. It's been exciting and unpredictable. It's broken a lot of records. We've had the most expensive primary ever, more than $100 million spent in the California gubernatorial primary. That's really something.

You've had some crazy races: accusations of multiple affairs and racial slurs -all against the same candidate, in this case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: And of course, we've the theme of this year has been this anti-incumbent sentiment on the part of voters. Polls show people are more likely to replace their own members of Congress this year than at any time since 1994. Actually, the number is worse than '94. And you've got sitting members of Congress and the Senate in danger of being kicked out of those offices.

SIEGEL: For example, in Arkansas, incumbent Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln is in serious jeopardy of losing a runoff, losing her seat tonight. Bring us up to date on the special election there.

LIASSON: That's right. Lincoln has been the most vulnerable incumbent all year. She got a challenge from the lieutenant governor of Arkansas, Bill Halter. But mostly what she got was a challenge from the left wing of the Democratic Party. The labor unions, the League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn.org have spent millions of dollars to defeat her.

Bill Halter was almost a proxy for this liberal frustration with Blanche Lambert Lincoln. And he didn't campaign on their issues, necessarily. He campaigned, as so many other challengers have this year, as an anti-incumbent candidate, saying Washington is broken.

You've got the specter of Bill Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, going back to Arkansas to campaign for Lincoln and going to war with the base of his own party, including MoveOn.org - which was founded, by the way, to support him. It meant move on from Monica.

So if you thought the debate was over between the left wing and the center of the Democratic Party, it's not. If she loses if Lincoln loses tonight, her opponents say this is going to be a warning to other centrist Democrats: Don't cross us.

SIEGEL: Now, in California, in the Republican primary, it is the non-politician female candidates who looked strong heading into today's voting.

LIASSON: They certainly do. Meg Whitman, former head of eBay, is running for the gubernatorial nomination in the Republican Party. She spent tremendous amounts of her own money. If she wins, which she's expected to do, she'll face Jerry Brown, who was the governor 40 years ago and is unopposed in the Democratic primary.

In the Senate primary in California for the Republicans, same thing. You have a former business executive, Carly Fiorina; she was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She is spending her own money. This is something new: self-financed Republican women. If she wins tonight, it's going to set up an epic battle with the incumbent Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, who has never had to face a candidate like Fiorina before.

SIEGEL: Now, there are also primaries in House elections across the country, including a hard-fought GOP primary in Virginia's fifth district. We heard about the incumbent Democrat, Tom Perriello, on our program yesterday. Is the Republican race there, or the race generally, emblematic of House races elsewhere?

LIASSON: Yes, because the field is so big. There are seven Republicans vying for a chance to take him on. And there are Tea Party candidates who have enlarged the field there. And in a lot of other races, Republicans see this year as a year filled with opportunities, and a lot more of them are running.

SIEGEL: And just in a moment, we have - also races in South Carolina and Nevada. Majority Leader Harry Reid, he'll figure out who will run against him in a very tough, Republican, three-way primary. And in South Carolina, the governor's race that you mentioned.

LIASSON: Right. Nikki Haley there is the female candidate. She'd be the if she's nominated and wins, she'd be the second Indian-American Republican Southern governor.

SIEGEL: Along with Bobby Jindal.

LIASSON: Right.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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