LOS ANGELES - How angry are Americans? People primed for change vote in 12 states Tuesday in contests that will decide the fate of two endangered Washington incumbents - a two-term senator in Arkansas and a six-term congressman in South Carolina - while setting the stage for some of the races that could determine the balance of power on Capitol Hill in the fall.
In an Arkansas runoff, Sen. Blanche Lincoln could fall to a fellow Democrat, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who says "the only way to change Washington is to change who we send there." South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis is trying to fend off primary challengers who have made the race a referendum on his 2008 vote to bail out up the nation's banking industry.
The political strength of the tea party movement faces tests in several states, particularly in Nevada, where three Republicans are in a bruising fight for the chance to take on Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, in November.
Republicans in California could send two political neophytes, wealthy former business executives Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, into races to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
In an election season overshadowed by the ailing economy and unhappiness with Washington, three longtime incumbents already have lost: Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.). A party switcher new on the scene, Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, stumbled this past week as voters demanded ideological purity.
Bennett calls the political atmosphere toxic. Races on Tuesday will provide fresh evidence of how far people want to go to shake up statehouses and Washington.
Earlier congressional contests have shown that incumbency can be a yoke and that voter discontent is running through both parties, even though the Democrats who control Congress have the most at risk in November. With President Barack Obama's popularity slipping, issues from the health care overhaul law to taxes are defining races.
The Republican race to succeed Schwarzenegger has been a display of extraordinary spending as well as a test of how far right the party wants to venture on issues such as illegal immigration in a traditionally Democratic-tilting state.
Republican billionaire Whitman, a former eBay chief executive, has invested more than $70 million of her own fortune in the race against state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, a wealthy former businessman who has put $24 million into his campaign. The all-but-certain Democratic nominee is Attorney General Jerry Brown, who was governor in the 1970s and 1980s.
In a year of tea party insurgency, "all of the Republican candidates in California have been pulled to the right," says political scientist Bruce Cain of the University of California, Berkeley. The question in November will be whether independents who cast decisive votes follow.