Candidates Stand Their Ground on Super Tuesday

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From left: Brett Flashnick / AP; Danny Johnston / AP; Jae C. Hong / AP

From left: Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Meg Whitman of California

People are unhappy. They've been unhappy for a while — through Enron and the dotcom bubble burst, 9/11, two wars, Katrina. They thought Barack Obama would bring change, but few have felt the changes he has wrought: Who can imagine how bad the economy could have gotten sans stimulus? It feels bad enough as it is. Then came the Gulf oil spill. If 2008 were a change election, 2010 promised to be even more so. Incumbents are even more unpopular than they were in 1994, the Washington Post told us. Voters favor newcomers 60% to 32%, Gallup reported. Indeed, voters began to take out their anger at the polls, electing virtually any yokel who promised change or railed at the Washington Establishment and sending home four congressional incumbents. The narrative thus far? Throw the bums out.

Then came Super Primary Tuesday. Somewhere along the way, voters on both sides of the aisle rediscovered their pragmatism. They remembered that viability, not just purity, is also important. In Arkansas, pundits were predicting the demise of two-term conservative Democrat Blanche Lincoln in a runoff, but voters proved them wrong, and Lincoln wangled a surprise comeback. In Iowa, Republicans bucked the Tea Party trend and gave former four-term governor Terry Branstad another shot at his old job. Likewise, in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District, six Tea Party candidates went home disappointed on Tuesday as the Establishment Republican, state senator Robert Hurt, ran away with the nomination, beating his closest opponent by more than 20 points.

In fact, a surprising number of Establishment candidates survived challenges in a season in which Washington's blessing often felt more like a curse. South Carolina state representative Nikki Haley prevailed in an ugly primary, which included not one but two accusations of adultery, to win 49% of the vote for the GOP nomination for governor (she still faces a runoff, which she looks likely to win). Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman handily won the GOP gubernatorial nomination (after spending $80 million on the primary, it would've been an incredibly expensive loss). Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina beat out a moderate and a Tea Party challenger in the Golden State's GOP primary to take on Senator Barbara Boxer. And Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat, looks likely to survive the toughest primary the eight-term incumbent has seen in a decade.

That's not to say the anti-incumbent spirit was nowhere to be found on Tuesday. Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons became the first incumbent governor to lose a primary — though that may have more to do with the accusations of adultery, an ugly divorce and his pitted battles with Nevada's legislature than the anti-Establishment wave. The Establishment's pick to take on Senator Harry Reid, former Nevada GOP chair Sue Lowden, lost to Tea Party darling Sharron Angle. In South Carolina's Fourth Congressional District, Republican Representative Bob Inglis was forced into a runoff he looks unlikely to win after only garnering 28% of the vote in the primary. Also in the Palmetto State, a virtual unknown named Alvin Greene won the Democratic primary to take on Senator Jim DeMint with 59% of the vote over Vic Rawl, a former judge and legislator and the Establishment pick. Greene, an unemployed veteran, spent next to no money, had no website and was hardly seen since he filed to run.

On the whole, it was a better-than-expected night for Democrats. Lincoln will start her general-election campagin as an underdog, but most experts say she has a better shot of beating Representative John Boozman, the GOP candidate, in conservative Arkansas than Lieut. Governor Bill Halter, who was much more progressive, would have. And Reid couldn't have asked for a better candidate in Angle than if he'd picked her himself: the former state representative is a ultra-conservative who supports phasing out Social Security and Medicare; wants to abolish the EPA and the Department of Energy and Education; and most recently got into trouble for supporting a prisoner drug rehab program that included massages.

But as always happens with hard-fought primaries, a lot of healing must be done on both sides ahead of the general election. Lincoln must reach out to the progressive base that was so infuriated with her, it spent $10 million trying to oust her. Haley must still win a runoff, but she also faces the challenge of bringing together a divided GOP in South Carolina. And both Whitman and Fiorina have their work cut out for them in solidifying their base. But if Washington wasn't quite the winner tonight, the big loser certainly was ideological purity.