Primaries Foreshadow November Elections

Voters in 11 states went to the polls Tuesday. It was a tough night for incumbents, while female candidates made significant gains. NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin offers his take on the winners and the losers. And Political activists Shelby Blakely, executive director of the New Patriot Journal, and Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, discuss the races and what the results could mean for November elections.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Now, you've probably heard about white flight. That's a term that refers to white families fleeing urban neighborhoods and schools when African-Americans were moving in.

In Dallas today, there's a variation on that theme. Black families are leaving Dallas public schools in droves. We'll find out more about that in just a few minutes. It's the first of two days of conversations we're having about contemporary issues in education. That's a little later.

And ahead of the World Cup, we'll focus on the world's highest paid soccer player. He is not from Italy, France, Brazil or any of the traditional capitals of soccer matters, he's from Cameroon. We'll find out more about him.

But first, it won't surprise you that we want to talk about Tuesday's primary elections, the biggest of the year so far. We want to put a special focus on women and minority candidates, along with the question of anti-incumbent fever and whether the Tea Party is really the potent force in politics that its supporters say that it is.

With us to talk more about this is NPR's politic editor Ken Rudin. He's here with me in the studio. And we're also going to check in a little later with two groups who've supported candidates on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Shelby Blakely is the executive director of The New Patriot Journal. That's an online publication of the conservative Tea Party movement. She joins us from her home in Prosser, Washington.

And Jim Dean is the chairman of Democracy for America. That's an organization that supports progressive candidates. He's joining us from the road where he's traveling from Connecticut to Vermont. So, welcome, everybody. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. SHELBY BLAKELY (Executive Director, The New Patriot Journal): Thank you.

Mr. JIM DEAN (Chairman, Democracy for America): Hey, hello, thanks for having us on.

MARTIN: So, Ken, let's set the table. Let's start with Blanche Lincoln, Democrat in Arkansas, she edged past Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. It was an expensive campaign. I just want to play a short clip of her and her victory speech last night. Here it is.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): We're going to move forward as Democrats tonight and into November to show the rest of this country to show the rest of this country that as Democrats, we have a great passion, a passion for the diversity and a passion for the hard work that made this country great and will make it great again. And we're going to bring that back here in Arkansas, and we're going to see it spread across this nation.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: Well, first of all, why did she have such a tough fight?

KEN RUDIN: Well, she talks about how proud she is to be a Democrat, but there are a lot of Democrats who felt that she was a Democrat in name only in the fact that she was very hesitant about the health care bill. She once supported but then broke away from a public option for health care. She opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, which was very near and dear to the labor unions.

And so the progressive left in Arkansas, and I don't know how big that is in a state like Arkansas, but the progressive left and unions like the SEIU decided that Bill Halter, the lieutenant governor, was a much preferred candidate. And most people felt that she was going to fall in the runoff because there was far more passion and more emotion against Blanche Lincoln than there was for her. And yet she pulled it out.

MARTIN: How did she pull it out?

RUDIN: Well, part of it was the fact that she Bill Clinton came and gave a very impassioned campaign appearance for her. That helped. And of course Bill Clinton is from a state that loves him very much. He was governor there for a long time. She also had very effective ads saying she is different. She stands up to the establishment of Washington. She stands up to organized labor. Now, that's very strange to hear coming from a Democratic candidate, but apparently it worked.

And labor has egg all over its face. They spent anywhere up to $10 million to defeat her, but in a year of so-called anti-incumbent fever, here's one incumbent who survived.

MARTIN: And what about there are two other races in which women candidates got a lot of attention. Tell us about those. I'm thinking Meg Whitman in California and Carly Fiorina, both also in California. Tell us about them.

RUDIN: Right. Well, the Republican Party decided that maybe politics as usual is not the way to go. So they went to so-called non-political people. Meg Whitman was the longtime head of eBay. Carly Fiorina was the head of Hewlett-Packard. They are multi-millionaires. As a matter of fact, Meg Whitman spent $71 million of her own money just to win the Republican nomination for governor. She's going to run against Jerry Brown, the former two-term governor in the fall. And Carly Fiorina will run against Barbara Boxer, where you have a race between two women.

Now, they both Whitman and Fiorina do have chinks in their armor when they were with eBay and Hewlett-Packard. There are some things that Democrats will certainly use against them. But Republicans feel this is a new kind of politics and they did it with these kind of candidates.

MARTIN: And did they run and, you know, we're telescoping here, did they run to the left or the right?

RUDIN: Well, Meg Whitman, knowing the fact that she's a Republican in California, was hoping to run down the middle. But her very conservative primary opponent Steve Poizner was pushing her more and more to the right or pulling her more and more to the right with attacks on her saying she was too soft on illegal immigration. You know, I support the Arizona law, she doesn't.

So, as Meg Whitman moved further and further to the right, that helped her win the Republican primary for governor going away, but that might hurt her with independents, you know, in November.

MARTIN: Was gender an issue in any of these races? I mean, we're focusing on gender, but did gender matter?

RUDIN: Perhaps not. If you ask Whitman and if you ask Fiorina, no. But they will talk about their business acumen and they're not part of the Washington establishment or the political establishment. That seemed to be more effective. One place where women did being a woman did matter was Nikki Haley, who ran for governor in South Carolina.

MARTIN: And tell us a little bit more about that.

RUDIN: Well, she was, you know, once upon a time she was completely unknown. She was backed by Jenny Sanford, the former wife of the awful Mark Sanford, the one who was involved in the sex scandal. And she also had the backing of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. And as her strength grew, she suddenly became - went from a nobody to a frontrunner. And in doing that, she got the attraction and the envy of the many of the male candidates who were in the race.

And then suddenly, at the last minute, two men came forward and said they had inappropriate physical relationships with the married Nikki Haley over the last couple of years, allegations that Nikki Haley completely denied and said it's absolutely not true. And whether that was going to hurt her or not, first of all, South Carolina has never had a female governor.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, South Carolina has the lowest percentage of female state officeholders in the country at the moment.

RUDIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And there are no women in the state Senate, for example. So, there's that.

RUDIN: Yeah, and the few women who have been nominated for state office usually get clobbered in November. But Nikki Haley did have a lot of key supporters. They said Sarah Palin, the conservatives, the Sanford machine, which still is, you know, formidable. And even with these allegations over her head, she won 49 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary. Had she gotten 50 percent, she would have won the nomination outright. Now she goes on to a June 22nd runoff.

MARTIN: One more race I want to ask you about before we bring in our other guests. I haven't forgotten you. Orly Taitz, the secretary of state candidate in California, best known as a so-called Birther queen. I don't know how she feels about that term. But her ongoing questioning of the validity of President Obama's birthplace, and therefore his legitimacy as president, how did that go?

RUDIN: Well, you know, there are some people who and especially Republicans, were scared to death that she was going to win the nomination for secretary of state of California because nobody was paying attention to that race at all and sometimes those kind of candidates could sneak in when nobody is looking. But as it turned out, she got basically, I think 22, 25 percent of the vote. She got clobbered in the primary. Republicans are spared an embarrassment there.

MARTIN: Now, Shelby, let's get your take on what these results say overall about the strength of the movement. On the one hand in Nevada, a woman from the Tea Party will face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. But then you've got the incumbent candidate in the Arkansas race was closely watched. A lot of national resources from around the country poured into that race. How do you interpret Tuesday's results?

Ms. BLAKELY: Well, as far as the Lincoln race is concerned, we're counting that as a win. Bill Halter was supported by labor unions and environmentalist groups that are proven to be counterproductive to the principles of free markets, constitutionally limited government and fiscal responsibility, particularly in the unions' case.

And she will be she has shown us our record and she will be much easier to show the door in November. She has proven that she's very adept at spending other people's money, namely my children and China's. So we're counting that as a win. We're actually really excited that she won because she'll be far easier to take out in November than an unknown who doesn't have the albatross of Obama care or the stimulus or TARP sequel hanging around its neck.

MARTIN: Okay, let me hear from Jim Dean and then we'll come back to both of you and hear more about what you say about some of these other races. Jim Dean, how do you interpret Tuesday's results?

Mr. DEAN: Well, you know, we certainly would have wanted Bill Halter to win. He ran a spirited campaign. I think it's telling that the Democratic Party, for all the things that can be said about it, is a party where we can have these kinds of debates about the direction of it and empower the voters to be involved in determining that direction.

I think it's also significant that a candidate like Bill Halter, that the kind of movement that he engendered happened in Arkansas, a state that had given John McCain a very large plurality. And yet the voters were certainly willing to listen and definitely entertain. This was a close race. A lot of those kinds of concepts and particularly the idea that we really should reform the government, as we felt that this race was about, and then the idea that we should really help people who are working for a living.

Those are things that came, you know, a traditionally conservative-minded state were really part of this debate. And so, you know, yeah, I'm a little bit disappointed about the outcome of this race, but I'm actually very heartened by how well this campaign went in the state and really how much the voters were engaged in this debate. And I think we're going to be able to go back and really do something for candidates, progressive candidates who are running and certainly candidates who support working families who are running for office in Arkansas in the future.

MARTIN: Does that mean you're going to support Blanche Lincoln in the fall?

Mr. DEAN: Well, you know, we tend to move from primaries to challengers. And which is where we're going to be focusing our efforts more so going forward. We will certainly be supporting the values of the party this fall. And to the extent that Blanche Lincoln is able to be committed towards things like banking reform or certainly reform and help for labor. We will certainly take a very, very close look at that in supporting her.

MARTIN: So you're also disappointed about Jane Harman? She is an incumbent congresswoman in California. You also endorsed her opponent.

Mr. DEAN: Right, Marcy Winograd.

MARTIN: So, two for two on the losing end.

Mr. DEAN: Well, you can't win them all. We were certainly very thrilled with the victory that Joe Sestak had in Pennsylvania, which we were very, very invested in. And we know we take a much longer term view of these things. You know, Marcy Winograd ran a spirited campaign that brought into question a lot of the issues surrounding Jane Harman's support for FISA, surrounding Jane Harman's support for Bush's bankruptcy bill. And those are things that need to be debated. And we think that's as important as who wins and who loses.

And obviously, we were thrilled with Joe Sestak's victory in Pennsylvania. We'll be thrilled when Elaine Marshall wins her primary in North Carolina on June 22nd. But we also know you're not going to win them all.

MARTIN: That is one of the things we want to hear more about. One of the arguments is that the energy is now on the side of the right, or the grassroots energy is on the Tea Party side, if you will. We need take a short break, but when we come back, we want to ask that question of our guests. We're visiting with Shelby Blakely, the executive director of The New Patriot Journal, that's an outlet connected with the Tea Party movement. Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, that supports progressive candidates. And NPR's political editor Ken Rudin.

Please stay with us. We'll have more on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Is Dallas experiencing black flight? Black families are fleeing the Dallas public school system. We'll find out more about why that might be in a just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about the biggest election day of the year up until November, that is, that was yesterday. The election battles had been not only unusually competitive, they have been extraordinarily crowded. Some 2,300 candidates are running for House and Senate seats this year. That's the most since the Federal Election Commission began tracking candidates more than three decades ago.

I'm speaking with NPR's political editor Ken Rudin and Shelby Blakely and Jim Dean. Shelby is a supporter of the Tea Party movement. Jim Dean runs a group that supports progressive candidates. And Ken Rudin, you had a question.

RUDIN: Jim Dean, I want to ask you a quick question: The three races you're talking about, you were happy with Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and you lost against Jane Harman and Blanche Lincoln yesterday. My question is, all three races were against Democratic incumbents: Harman, Specter and Lincoln. There's one side of the side of the coin that says that basically what you're doing is splitting the Democratic Party vote and allowing Republicans to win in November.

The other side of the coin is that you're telling Democrats that they cannot take the progressive vote for granted because, after all, they're getting the money from the left, but they're not filling their part of the bargain. How do you see it?

Mr. DEAN: Well, more importantly than that, they're getting a lot of hard work from progressives to help, and a lot of hours and a lot of people's valuable time to help win. And, yeah, I think the latter point, there's certainly a lot of that there. Progressives feel that they want candidates to be more responsive to them, particularly if they're working hard to get them involved in office.

But the other part of this has to do with something that I think is very, very healthy. I think the issue of who is the nominee in a party is really an issue for the voters to decide and for the rank and file of the party to decide.

And I think, you know, too much of times we've seen sort of a culture of incumbents in Washington make the decision about who is or who is not more electable. And in many respects, what this is doing and what these primaries are doing is energizing the voters to get involved and to stay involved and to keep their energy up for the eventual nominee.

And I remind everybody that 30,000 people in Connecticut registered into the Democratic Party to vote in Ned Lamont's primary versus Joe Lieberman, (unintelligible) that was about the Iraq War. And so these are the kinds of things that I think are very healthy. I think this debate is very healthy and I think it gets voters engaged. It keeps them engaged.

MARTIN: Shelby, I want to ask you about that figure I cited at the beginning of this segment that 2,300 candidates running for House and Senate seats, as I said, that's the most since the FEC began tracking candidates more than three decades back, why do you think that is?

Ms. BLAKELY: Well, simply because Washington is broken and Americans want to fix things. With the sheer amount of spending and the scope in which the federal government is usurping authority both from the states and from the people, it's very, very clear, the writing is on the wall that we're taking our country back. And we have a record number of people putting their money where their mouth is.

Even if they're not running for office because the inn is already full, they are donating millions of man hours to support politicians who will vote themselves less power.

MARTIN: And, Shelby, who are you taking it back from?

Ms. BLAKELY: The current federal bureaucracy, bloated departments like the Department of Education or the Department of Labor. We are also organizing to fight the machine that is currently organized labor and using donated man hours because Americans don't have a lot of extra money to spend right now. But we do have time.

MARTIN: Okay. Ken, you had something to say very briefly?

RUDIN: Yeah, Shelby, just quick question: One of the big Tea Party victories yesterday was Sharon Angle winning in Nevada, but many Democrats and nonpartisan observers say that Angle may be the easiest candidate for Harry Reid to defeat. How do you address that problem for Tea Party people?

Ms. BLAKELY: Well, they stuck to their principles and the Tea Party is about principles. Sue Lowden was one of the Republican Party members that was ousted when the Tea Party organized and took back the Republican Party from the way they had been veering.

And honestly, if Harry Reid, she may be the easiest for Harry Reid to beat. That doesn't mean he can beat her. This is the Harry Reid is the poster boy of what's wrong with Washington. And in race after race after race, his compatriots are being taken out. So I don't expect anything less from the people of Nevada.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there for now, but hopefully we'll talk again. Shelby Blakely is the executive director of the online New Patriot Journal, that's focused on the Tea Party movement. She joined us from her home in Prosser, Washington.

Also with us, Jim Dean, he's the chairman of Democracy for America, which supports progressive candidates. He was kind enough to pull over to talk to us while he's en route from Connecticut to Vermont. And also with us from Washington, Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor. I thank you all for all speaking with us.

Ms. BLAKELY: Thanks for having us.

Mr. DEAN: Thank you.

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