WASHINGTON — Once, California Democrats led the way to a year of the women. Now, nearly two decades later, Republicans hope it’s their turn.
Meg Whitman won the party’s nomination for California governor on Tuesday and Carly Fiorina will carry the GOP banner into the fall campaign for a Senate seat, a pair of wealthy businesswomen and first-time candidates running against veteran politicians in a year of palpable anti-establishment sentiment.
In next-door Nevada, a third woman contender, Sharron Angle, won the right to oppose Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the fall.
And hundreds of miles to the east, South Carolina state Rep. Nikki Haley outpaced three male rivals in a race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Shy of a majority, she will face Rep. Gresham Barrett in a June 22 runoff in a solidly Republican state.
Democrats, too, got into the theme of the busiest primary night of the year.
In Maine, Libby Mitchell captured the Democratic nomination for governor of Maine on Tuesday, soundly defeating her three opponents in a genial but spirited race that until the polls opened had no clear front-runner.
Embattled two-term Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln scored a narrow win over her labor-backed rival in Arkansas, and now must pivot to face Rep. John Boozman in the fall.
The primaries, spread across a dozen states from coast to coast, took place against a backdrop 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.
Lincoln told voters she understood their discontent with a late campaign ad that said, “I know you’re angry at Washington.”
Whitman offered her own version of the same sentiment in her first appearance as GOP nominee to replace retiring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Career politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., be warned: You now face your worst nightmare — two businesswomen from the real world who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done,” she said. The remarks were aimed at Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., seeking a return to the office he left in 1983.
Ironically, Boxer’s victory and that of fellow California Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1992 were standout events in an election year that sent record numbers of women to Congress, many of them Democrats. Scores of women were enraged by the predominantly male Senate’s treatment of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; that anger translated into female candidates running for Congress.
Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, spent more than $70 million in her own funds to claim her nomination. Fiorina is a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
As bruising as they were, the night’s events merely set the stage for the fall campaign, when Republicans hope to challenge Democratic control of Congress and the two parties vie for three dozen statehouses.
Fiorina is “against a woman’s right to choose, supports the Arizona immigration law, wants to repeal health care and supports allowing people on the ‘no-fly’ list to buy guns,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Michael Steele, the Republican national chairman, countered that in victory, Lincoln “has made it clear that she will simply fall in line with President Obama’s big-spending, big-government agenda, putting her vastly out of touch with the majority of Arkansans.”
Another conservative Democrat, California Rep. Jane Harman, withstood a challenge from a more liberal opponent — in this case, Marcy Winograd, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Progressive Democrats of America.
Two incumbents did not fare as well Tuesday.
Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons of Nevada fell to Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge, after a term marked by a messy public divorce and allegations of infidelity. Rory Reid, the son of the Senate majority leader, won the Democratic nomination.
And Republican Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina trailed challenger Trey Gowdy by double digits, though he 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.
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.