THOMMA: No single trend clear from primaries

WASHINGTON — Primary votes in 11 states this week helped set the table for November's general elections, but don't look for a theme menu with one cuisine from these results. It's more of a food court.

Outsiders winning? Many did, but veteran insiders won top races in Arkansas and Iowa.

From coast to coast, the latest round of primaries shows that the electorate remains ready to challenge the status quo and the establishment, but also that state and local issues and the quirks of individual candidates still can drive elections in any state. The results also serve to remind that voter turnout in summer party primaries tends to be small, where organization often counts more than trends in national opinion.

In California, Republicans nominated two conservative women from big business who vow to run against big government in campaigns for governor and U.S. senator.

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman won the primary to be the Republican candidate for governor against former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. A billionaire, she spent $80 million to win the primary, most of it her own cash.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina won the GOP nomination to run for the U.S. Senate, and will challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. Fiorina, too, spent heavily.

In Iowa, Republicans turned to the inside game, nominating former four-term Gov. Terry Branstad as their candidate to challenge Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.

Branstad received the endorsement of Sarah Palin at the last moment, a move that angered some Palin supporters, who complained that she bypassed more purist conservative candidates for a man more likely to win — and thus be in a position to help her in the pivotal state should she run for president in 2012.

In Arkansas, two-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln won a close runoff primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter despite polls suggesting that she'd be the third senator to lose a primary this year, after Democrat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Republican Robert Bennett in Utah.

Labor unions poured $10 million into the race to try to defeat Lincoln after she opposed adding a government-run insurance program to the recently enacted health care overhaul. They backed Halter, who's hardly an outsider.

Labor's clout is limited in Arkansas, however, where just 4.2 percent of the work force is unionized, according to AFL-CIO figures.

Former President — and former Arkansas Gov. — Bill Clinton also rushed in to help centrist Lincoln fight back against the union onslaught. The culture of Arkansas Democratic politics appears to have trumped the union effort to nationalize the race.

In Nevada, Republicans nominated former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, a tea party favorite, as their candidate to oppose Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. The nomination sets up a high-profile face-off in which the differences are stark.

As the Senate majority leader, Reid is the face of the Democratic establishment in Washington. Angle champions small government, pushing to close the federal Departments of Education and Energy and phase out Social Security for younger Americans.

While polls have shown Reid to be weak against virtually any Republican, his backers had hoped that Angle would become his opponent, so he could paint her as an extremist. They got their wish.

In South Carolina, allegations of extramarital affairs color a race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination that's now headed for a runoff between state Rep. Nikki Haley and U.S. Rep. J. Gresham Barrett.

Haley had to deny unsubstantiated allegations of infidelity that other Republicans threw at her, which may have helped hold her to 49 percent of the vote Tuesday, just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Haley enjoyed endorsements from Palin and former state first lady Jenny Sanford. If she were to win, she'd be the first woman of Indian heritage to hold statewide office in South Carolina.

Thomma covers the White House for the Bee Washington Bureau.