COLUMBIA, S.C. – With support from tea party voters and Sarah Palin, an Indian-American woman and a black man entered Tuesday primary runoffs for separate firsts in South Carolina politics.
Nikki Haley could move closer to becoming South Carolina's first woman governor while Tim Scott hoped to become the state's first black GOP congressman in more than a century. Both are state representatives and have been endorsed by Palin.
The tea party chorus was more fractured in Utah, where another closely watched runoff features split conservative backing for the two Republicans vying to succeed three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett. Bennet was ousted at the Republican state convention in a success for tea party supporters, but settling on his successor has proved harder.
In South Carolina, Haley faced U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett. Scott was going up against Paul Thurmond, the son of the late U.S. Sen. and former segregationist Strom Thurmond.
Haley, a married mother of two, spent the weeks before the June 8 primary denying allegations by a blogger and a lobbyist that they'd had physical relationships with her. Shortly after those accusations, Haley also had to face being called a "raghead" — a derogatory term for people of Middle Eastern or Indian descent — by one opponent's backer.
Instead of scuttling her bid, voters rejected the nasty campaigning and nearly handed her the nomination outright with 49 percent of the vote. In a four-way primary, Barrett was a distant second at 22 percent.
Meanwhile, Scott won 31 percent of the primary vote in a nine-way primary with Thurmond a distant second. That race could provide a measure of both racial progress in the South and the GOP's ability to diversify.
Six-term Rep. Bob Inglis is struggling to hold onto his House seat in a GOP runoff against prosecutor Trey Gowdy.
Contests like those are expected to drive turnout in the state's GOP primary.
Illustrating how fractured the tea party movement is in Utah, one of the founders of the state's tea party movement, David Kirkham, endorsed front-runner Tim Bridgewater on Monday. But attorney Mike Lee, 38, had already picked up the support of the California-based Tea Party Express, which is weighing in on primary races nationwide.
A lot is at stake. Whoever wins Tuesday's GOP nomination should cruise to victory in November in heavily Republican Utah. A Democrat hasn't won a U.S. Senate race here since 1970.
In North Carolina, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall is locked in a close runoff against Cal Cunningham, the favorite of Democratic Party leaders in Washington, for the party nod for the Senate. The winner faces an uphill race against Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
Mississippi also has a runoff for the Republican nominee in a House race.
Back in Utah, Bridgewater and Lee advanced to the primary on promises to rein in federal spending. But without an incumbent in the race and little to distinguish their platforms, tea party supporters have struggled to coalesce around a single candidate.
"We were very happy when the results of the nominating convention came out, but the purpose of all our involvement isn't necessarily to knock out the worst people, but to put in the best people who represent our values — and that's Mike Lee," said Bryan Shroyer, political director for the Tea Party Express.
Federal Election Commission reports show the group has spent $30,000 supporting Lee since Thursday, mostly on radio advertisements.
At the convention, Bridgewater won 57 percent of the vote — 3 percent more and he would have won the nomination outright. A Brigham Young University survey of convention delegates showed that 85 percent of delegates had a favorable impression of the tea party movement and 42 percent of delegates considered themselves active supporters of the movement.
Kirkham said he believes Lee and Bridgewater, 49, both qualify as tea party candidates and that either one would make a good senator, but he believes Bridgewater could get more done in Washington.
Also on Tuesday, Democrats will choose their nominee in the 2nd Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson is seeking a sixth term, but is facing a challenge from his left by retired teacher Claudia Wright.
Wright won 45 percent of the vote at the Democratic convention, forcing Matheson into his first-ever Democratic primary. Matheson is being targeted by the left for voting against President Barack Obama's health care bill. Matheson has since said he would oppose repealing the legislation.
Vergakis reported from Salt Lake City.
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