Arizona Sen. John McCain romped to the Republican nomination for a fifth term Tuesday, fending off a stiff conservative challenge to make a resounding comeback from his loss in the 2008 presidential campaign. But in Alaska, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski was fighting for her political survival, narrowly trailing a "tea party" insurgent backed by former Gov. Sarah Palin.
Murkowski had enjoyed a big financial edge over Joe Miller, a lawyer in Fairbanks, and had led in public opinion polls. But the Tea Party Express spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads assailing Murkowski as insufficiently conservative and promoting Palin's endorsement.
It had not been clear whether Palin's support would be of much help to Miller. The former governor's popularity in Alaska plunged after she joined the national GOP ticket, and fell again when she left office with 18 months remaining in her term. But, with 97.9% of the precincts reporting, Miller led by fewer than 2,000 votes, 51% to Murkowski's 49%. Several thousand absentee ballots remained to be counted.
A third political veteran, Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek, withstood a multimillion-dollar onslaught to easily capture the U.S. Senate nomination over billionaire Jeff Greene. On the Republican side, free-spending businessman Rick Scott narrowly defeated Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum for Florida's gubernatorial nomination.
The two contests amounted to a split decision on the overriding theme of Tuesday's primaries: insurgency versus the political establishment, set against a backdrop of broad economic anxiety and widespread unhappiness with President Obama and both major parties.
In Arizona, that tension was resolved in McCain's favor. But late into the night, Alaska remained too close to call.
McCain had seemed destined to face one of his toughest reelection fights ever, after virtually ignoring his home state to make two tries for the presidency. The four-term senator has never been well liked or completely trusted by Arizona's right wing.
By contrast, his main opponent, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, enjoyed a conservative following from his congressional days crusading against illegal immigration and, more recently, as a Phoenix talk-radio host.
Campaigning harder in Arizona than he had in years, McCain surrendered his maverick image and shifted rightward on a number of issues, including immigration reform, climate change and the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
He spent more than $20 million and used his enormous financial edge to bombard Hayworth with a relentless series of attacks; one of the most damaging used footage from a 2007 infomercial in which Hayworth touted "free money" to be had from the federal government. Strategists for McCain dubbed him "J.D. Huckster."
Hayworth accused McCain of an election-year conversion — he called himself "the consistent conservative" — and heaped scorn on McCain's presidential ambitions. But Hayworth's background — 12 years on Capitol Hill and an association with the imprisoned ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff — made him a less-than-ideal messenger.
In claiming victory Tuesday night, McCain sounded as though he was still running against Obama. He predicted Republicans would win the House and Senate in November and said: "When we do, we will stop the out-of-control spending and tax increases and repeal and replace Obamacare.... We will secure our borders, defend our nation and bring our troops home from Afghanistan with honor and victory."
McCain is a heavy favorite for reelection. Also in Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed into law the state's tough crackdown on illegal immigration, won the GOP nomination and will face Democratic Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard in the fall.
In Florida, political novice Greene poured millions into attack ads, portraying Meek as a corrupt Washington insider. Meek responded in kind. Greene's business background and picaresque personal life — his intimates include boxer Mike Tyson and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss — offered plenty of fodder.
"It shows Floridians that even when we run into a wall, we find a way to get around it, or over it, or through it," Meek told supporters in Hollywood, Fla.
The back-and-forth, however, did little to help Meek's image. Polls show that the Miami congressman, in his bid to be Florida's first black senator, is trailing Republican Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, who quit the GOP to run as an independent.
In the Florida governor's race, Scott and McCollum spent in excess of $50 million trashing each other. Scott, a first-time candidate, attacked McCollum as a career politician and linked him to the state's ex-GOP chairman, who has been indicted on allegations that he misused party funds. McCollum accused Scott of "ripping off taxpayers" as head of healthcare giant Columbia/HCA, which was fined for committing major Medicare fraud under his watch.
The mud-heaving seemed to most benefit the Democratic nominee, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose first TV ad criticized Republicans for bickering instead of addressing Florida's problems.
Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Anchorage contributed to this report.