Primaries test establishment vs. outsiders in Florida, Arizona and Alaska

Rep. Kendrick Meek is the Democratic nominee for Senate, overcoming billionaire Jeff Greene's massive television and mail onslaught to win a bitter Florida primary. Meek will face off against Gov. Charlie Crist and Republican Marco Rubio in November.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 9:02 AM

Arizona Sen. John McCain, once seen as another Republican incumbent threatened by a conservative grass-roots insurgency, won his primary Tuesday night by trouncing former congressman J.D. Hayworth.

But Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) was trailing her underfunded challenger, who was buoyed by support from former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and "tea party" groups.

On a day of coast-to-coast primaries that tested the power of the establishment against the appeal of political outsiders, McCain demonstrated anew that some incumbents who receive advance warning may be able to fend off challenges.

Murkowski, in contrast, appeared at risk of becoming the third Senate incumbent to fail at the polls during this primary season. Absentee ballots are still trickling in, and a final vote tally is not expected for at least a week.

In Florida, voters delivered a mixed verdict on the outsider versus establishment question. In the Democratic Senate primary, Rep. Kendrick Meek easily defeated billionaire businessman and political novice Jeff Greene.

His victory set up a compelling three-way general election that includes Republican nominee Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, who quit his party to avoid a defeat in the primary and is running as an independent.

In Florida's Republican primary for governor, however, wealthy businessman and political newcomer Rick Scott defeated state attorney general Bill McCollum after a bitterly fought campaign that saw Scott spend tens of millions of dollars of his own money.

Democrats picked Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, as their nominee, with both sides predicting a competitive race in November. The scars from the GOP primary could complicate Scott's chances of winning but he will have plenty of money to make his case.

In a year described alternately as anti-incumbent and anti-Washington, political outsiders have triumphed in many places, capturing GOP primaries in Utah, Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado and Connecticut, among others. "Tea party" activists played a crucial role in many of those states.

But some embattled incumbents have survived unexpectedly strong challenges, as was the case two weeks ago in Colorado, where appointed Sen. Michael Bennet beat back a challenge from former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff. McCain's easy victory and Meek's comeback in Florida continued that pattern Tuesday.

Still, there is little to suggest that voter disaffection with Washington is dissipating or that Republican energy and enthusiasm are weakening. With President Obama in the White House and Democrats holding both the House and Senate, Democratic incumbents are expected to feel the brunt of that anger.

The question is whether some embattled Democratic incumbents have had enough time to prepare for the tests they will face this fall.

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