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

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.

Five states - Arizona, Florida, Alaska, Vermont and Oklahoma -- held primary contests on Tuesday, one of the last major primary days before the general election in November.

In Florida, Meek capitalized on high-profile endorsements from Obama and former president Bill Clinton and a base of support in vote-rich South Florida to overcome a flurry of television commercials by his opponent. Greene spent more than $20 million on the primary campaign.

Meek's prospects looked shaky earlier in the summer, largely because of that television barrage by Greene. But the newcomer's lead began to disappear after a series of stories in the Florida press that recounted how he had made millions in a falling real estate market and that chronicled raucous partying aboard his 145-foot yacht and his friendship with boxer Mike Tyson.

Rubio cast himself as the lone candidate in the fall contest who is ready to do battle with Obama and the Democrats. Meek will be the most liberal of the three, with Crist hoping to capture the center of the electorate and the state's independent voters.

The Democratic nominee will start as a distinct underdog in the general election. Democratic leaders nationally now face a difficult choice as they decide whether to put substantial resources behind Meek's candidacy.

Many Democrats anticipate that Crist, who has burned virtually all bridges with his former party, would caucus with the Democrats in Washington if he were elected. Had Greene won the nomination, Democratic leaders probably would have stayed out of the race and quietly encouraged voters to back Crist.

But Meek's base in the African American community and his ties to establishment figures in the party will add to pressure not to abandon his candidacy. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, issued a statement praising Meek and implicitly criticizing both Rubio and Crist.

In the gubernatorial primary, McCollum began the race as the favorite, until Scott jumped in and unleashed a torrent of spending that approached $40 million. Scott surged into the lead, but in recent weeks the race tightened significantly.

In the final days of the campaign, both the Republican Governors Association and the Republican Party of Florida rebuked Scott for what they said was a misrepresentation of McCollum's record.

Scott was nevertheless able to pull out the victory but remains an outsider within his own party. Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, issued a statement criticizing Sink but offering only a lukewarm embrace of one of the party's newest gubernatorial nominees.

"Intraparty struggles are often difficult to watch, and the contest in Florida has been a good example of that," he said. "That said, the primary is over, Rick Scott is the nominee, the general election has begun, and our party now looks forward."

Florida featured one other challenge to an elected official. In that race, Rep. Allen Boyd (D), a moderate who represents the Florida Panhandle, narrowly defeated state Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson.

No race on the ballot Tuesday drew more attention than McCain's primary challenge. A few months ago, after victories by tea party candidates in Kentucky and the defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) in his bid for renomination, McCain was seen as potentially endangered.

Hayworth, who served six terms in the House, challenged McCain from the right and sought to capture the support and energy of grass-roots conservatives and tea party supporters. McCain called in Palin for a series of appearances in which his former running mate extolled his courage and his conservatism.

McCain, who was never the favorite of his party's base even though he was the GOP presidential nominee two years ago, took nothing for granted in his bid for a fifth term. He courted conservative groups and made border security, rather than comprehensive reform, the centerpiece of his immigration message.

McCain outspent Hayworth by a ratio of roughly 8 to 1 and in a television commercial attacked him as a huckster for having appeared in an infomercial promoting a company that touted free government grants to individuals.

The Democratic National Committee issued a biting statement on the Arizona results, asserting that voters had nominated "J.D. Hayworth in the shell of a politician that was once John McCain," noting that McCain had moved right to secure his nomination. But the Arizona senator will enter the general election as the favorite to win another term.

In Alaska, Murkowski battled against a similar challenge. She tried to capitalize on her incumbency, her family name and her allegiance with former senator Ted Stevens, who died earlier this month in a plane crash.

Miller enjoyed support from Palin and tea party activists. But he remained the underdog heading into Election Day.

Palin's opposition to Murkowski carried on a pattern of challenging the Murkowski family. In 2006, Palin defeated Murkowski's father, former senator and then-governor Frank Murkowski, in the Republican primary.

In Vermont, where Gov. Jim Douglas (R) is retiring, Republicans nominated Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie to succeed him.

In the crowded Democratic primary, state Sen. Peter Shumlin, state Sen. Doug Racine, and secretary of state Deb Markowitz were closely bunched with most of the precincts reporting.

Although Vermont is considered heavily Democratic, both sides predict a competitive gubernatorial race in November.

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