How Nikki Haley and Blanche Lincoln pulled off their astonishing victories.

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June 9 2010 12:52 AM

Women on Top

How Nikki Haley and Blanche Lincoln pulled off their astonishing victories.

Blanche Lincoln. Click image to expand.
Blanche Lincoln

Charges of infidelity aren't what they used to be. In South Carolina, GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley was accused of not keeping faith with her marriage vows, and in Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was accused of not keeping faith with her party. But tonight, both women survived the attacks, as Haley finished first in her primary and Lincoln won her runoff.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Lincoln's victory upset the longstanding conventional wisdom that says an incumbent loses when there is a runoff as well as the 2010 conventional wisdom that incumbents are doomed in this anti-Washington year. She also complicated the plans of organized labor, which wanted to use the Lincoln race to kick off a new tough message to Democrats: Take us for granted, and we'll remove you from office. Unlike Haley, whose accusers had no proof of her adultery and whose opponents largely avoided pressing the claims about her, Lincoln faced an organized and concerted effort. Labor unions and Democratic activists spent an estimated $10 million to defeat her. They failed.

Labor unions will claim that they pushed Lincoln to the left and that other moderate senators will have to do the same. Perhaps, but that's not a great return on investment. When you're trying to send a message, losing interferes with the signal. The White House pushed back hard against labor. A senior administration official told me "organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise. If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November." It was harder to tease national messages out of these races, unlike last month's contests, though there will be a vigorous debate in Democratic circles between establishment party members, unions, and grass-roots activists.

While labor's reputation has been diminished tonight, Bill Clinton's has improved. He campaigned hard for Lincoln, and when analysts look for what late-breaking thing made this narrow race turn, they may very well land on Clinton's last minute push, in which he accused labor unions of trying to manipulate voters.

Lincoln will have a tough general election fight in a Republican-trending state. Immediately, the Democratic Senatorial Committee in Washington, D.C., tried to use Lincoln's defeat of the unions to help brand her as an independent. "In this race Blanche took on powerful special interests in Washington and won," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez.

In South Carolina, Nikki Haley trounced her opponents but failed, by a whisper, to avoid a runoff. On June 22, she will face Gresham Barrett, who received 22 percent of the vote to Haley's 49 percent. The question now for Barrett is whether he'll face pressure to drop out of the race or whether he'll be able to raise money in the coming weeks. (Despite the adultery allegations and lie-detector tests in the governor's race, South Carolina's most interesting political development of the night may actually be that six-term Republican incumbent congressman Bob Inglis also faces a runoff, after trailing his opponent Trey Gowdy by 12 points.)

If Haley wins, it could help improve the image of the South Carolina GOP, which has stumbled since the adultery scandal that disgraced Gov. Mark Sanford—and which has some comic-book villains. She would be the favorite in November, which means that the Republican Party, still dogged by its history of preying on white-Southern fears about African-Americans, would have two Southern governors of Indian descent.

As the night drew to a close, it looked like a clean sweep for women in the evening's most anticipated contests. In California, Meg Whitman won the Republican gubernatorial nomination and Carly Fiorina won the Republican contest to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer. In Nevada, Sharron Angle seemed on her way to winning the Republican nomination and the chance to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Nevada was the one state where infidelity did seem to play a role. Sitting Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has faced charges of adultery, was defeated in his primary. The state may be home to Las Vegas, but, still, there are standards.

AP Video: Whitman, Fiorina, Lincoln Prevail on Election Night

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