WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. Kendrick Meek cinched Florida’s Senate Democratic nomination by defeating political upstart Jeff Greene on Tuesday, and veteran politician Bill McCollum battled novice Rick Scott in the state’s GOP gubernatorial contest as voters weighed the merits of establishment candidates vs. wealthy outsiders.
Elsewhere, Sens. John McCain and Lisa Murkowski counted on voters to reward political experience as they faced spirited Republican primary challenges in Arizona and Alaska 10 weeks before the general election.
Nominating contests in five states — Vermont also was voting, and Oklahoma held GOP runoffs — highlighted dominant themes of this unpredictable election year, including anti-establishment anger and tea party challenges from the right.
As the first polls of the night closed, Meek toppled Greene, a big-spending real estate tycoon whose links to boxer Mike Tyson and former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss drew headlines, in the Democratic Senate nomination fight. The four-term congressman will compete against Republican Marco Rubio, who easily secured the GOP nod, and Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican who is running as an independent, in November.
“Floridians sent a clear message — they want a real Democrat representing them in the U.S. Senate,” Meek said. “The naysayers said we couldn’t beat a billionaire, and tonight with your help, we proved them wrong.” Poking at both Crist and Rubio without naming them, he added: “Floridians want leaders who will fight for them all the time, not just when it helps their own political career or advances an extreme philosophy.”
In the bitter GOP race for governor, McCollum, the state’s attorney general and a former congressman, looked to fend off Scott, who made a fortune in the health care industry and spent $39 million of his own money on his bid. In November, the victor will face Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer who sailed to the Democratic nomination.
In several states, the tea party’s clout was on the line.
Both McCain of Arizona and Murkowski of Alaska worked to overcome challenges from candidates backed by the fledgling coalition that questioned the lawmakers’ conservative credentials. Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth ran in Arizona, Sarah Palin-endorsed Joe Miller, an attorney, in Alaska.
McCain and Murkowski would virtually ensure their re-elections with primary victories; no Democrats are considered serious challengers.
In Vermont, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, first elected in 1974, coasted to renomination for what is likely to be a new term in November.
Tuesday’s primaries played out before a backdrop of persistently high unemployment, voter disillusionment with Republicans and Democrats alike, and low job-performance standings for both Congress and President Barack Obama.
In previous contests earlier this year, voters have shown both a readiness to fire veteran lawmakers and a willingness to keep them.
The tea party has had mixed success. It won big in Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado and Utah GOP Senate contests but lost just about everywhere else.
But no matter Tuesday’s outcomes, there was no question that the tea party has provided an enormous dose of enthusiasm to the GOP heading into the fall campaign. And that’s dangerous for a dispirited Democratic base.
Arizona Republicans also held contested primaries to challenge incumbent Democratic Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell. And the House seat being vacated by retiring Republican Rep. John Shadegg attracted 10 Republican hopefuls, including Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle.
In an indication of voter dissatisfaction in both parties, Florida Democratic Reps. Allen Boyd, Corrine Brown, Kathy Castor, Ron Klein and Suzanne Kosmas, and GOP Reps. Cliff Stearns and Vern Buchanan all faced primary challengers. But all the incumbents either secured their nominations or were on the verge of winning.