Female Candidates Shine In Arkansas, Calif., S.C.

Embattled Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas narrowly won nomination to a third Senate term Tuesday night. In California, Republicans elected a pair of wealthy businesswomen, first-time candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, to lead this fall's ticket.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

The primaries around the nation yesterday amounted to the biggest Election Day leading up to November. We now know the candidates who will contend for key races.

INSKEEP: They include Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. She won the right to fight for her job against a Republican this fall. That's where we start our conversation with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Got to say, Blanche Lincoln was ferociously opposed by some on the left in her own party. So what it's mean that she won?

LIASSON: This is the biggest news of the night. She was widely expected to lose, but she hung on. And here's what she had to say last night.

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): I have heard your message. And let me tell you, I cannot feel any stronger than I feel today, as a daughter of the Delta in Arkansas, to know that your message is loud and clear, that Washington - Washington needs to work for us...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. LINCOLN: ...for us in Arkansas.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

LIASSON: So, there you have it: the incumbent striking a anti-Washington tone. This was a huge defeat for organized labor and liberal groups that spent millions of dollars to defeat her. What's that old saying? When you go out to kill the king, you better kill him? But they failed. It was a triumph for the White House and for Bill Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, who swooped into Arkansas to campaign for her.

She did win narrowly against Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. Now, I should say she's still trailing her Republican opponent in the fall, John Boozman, but this was the biggest news of the night, that she managed to hang onto her job.

INSKEEP: Is she going to depend on those labor unions and others who opposed her in order to try to win election in November?

LIASSON: Well, they're not going to help her. Their message was - they wanted to send a message to other centrist Democrats that broke with them on important issues that they cannot be taken for granted. And no, they are not going to be supporting her in the fall.

INSKEEP: Well, let's move in now to California. Two Republican women won nominations.

LIASSON: Yes. And these results were as expected. Two multi-millionaire businesswomen won their Republican primaries. Meg Whitman won the gubernatorial primary. She's going to face former Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who was governor 35 years ago. And on the Senate side, Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, is going to face incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. This is going to be an epic battle. Boxer is considered an endangered incumbent, and she has never had a tough race like this from someone who has the kind of resources, and also clout, as Carly Fiorina.

INSKEEP: Now, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been expected to face a tough race this fall, and now we know who it's against.

LIASSON: Yes. And I think we can say that he got the candidate he wanted to run against. Sharron Angle surged from behind and won the Republican Senate primary in Nevada. She was back by the Tea Party. She's taken a number of positions that are controversial or unpopular, and Reid hopes to exploit those in the fall. She's made comments about Social Security and Medicare. She is for storing nuclear waste on Yucca Mountain, which is an unpopular view in Nevada.

Also in Nevada: The first sitting governor this season to lose his job, Jim Gibbons, was defeated in the Republican primary by Brian Sandoval.

INSKEEP: Okay. So those are the results in Nevada. We've heard about California and we've heard about Arkansas. What about in South Carolina, where there were some big elections last night?

LIASSON: In South Carolina, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley easily beat her opponents, but she didn't get 50 percent. So she will proceed to a runoff against the next-highest vote getter, Gresham Barrett. Nikki Haley was the subject of accusations of infidelity - not once, but twice. She was also the victim of a racial slur during this campaign. And those accusations seemed to have backfired and actually strengthened her. So she goes into the runoff the favorite.

INSKEEP: Any big theme to last night's results, Mara Liasson?

LIASSON: I don't know if there was a big theme. I think we saw a continued strength of anti-incumbent sentiment. The Tea Parties are still strong. Several Tea Party-backed candidates won their primaries. But because Blanche Lambert Lincoln held onto her job, I think Democrats are breathing a tiny bit easier today. You can see that there are ways for Democrats to hang on, but it's still a very, very tough environment for incumbents.

INSKEEP That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, always a pleasure.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

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