Reporting from Washington — For months, skeptics questioned the staying power of the "tea party" movement. But surprise primary election returns in Florida and Alaska this week underscored its strength and resilience.
Two outsider candidates who embraced the movement's anti-government, anti-spending messages staggered their entrenched, establishment Republican opponents Tuesday, showing that public anger toward Washington remains a resonant, if volatile, force heading into the home stretch of the congressional campaign season.
Rick Scott, a billionaire healthcare executive who has spent more than $50 million on his campaign for Florida governor, and Joe Miller, a lawyer and Army veteran who has mounted a low-powered grass-roots candidacy for an Alaska Senate seat, both found success in casting their GOP adversaries as career politicians in a year in which incumbency has been, on occasion, a toxic condition.
Going into Tuesday's primaries, those career politicians had been expected to carry the day.
But Scott knocked off Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum, a former congressman, who was backed by the state's GOP establishment.
And Miller, who was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, held a narrow lead over Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an eight-year incumbent, with thousands of absentee votes still being tallied.
Only Sen. John McCain of Arizona repelled a conservative insurgent.
Early on, McCain saw storm clouds gathering that Murkowski apparently ignored, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst in Washington with the Cook Political Report.
"If she loses, I think it was because she ignored all the warning signs about what a tough environment this is for incumbents who have primaries," Duffy said.
Murkowski held a distinct financial advantage but didn't use it to attack Miller — in contrast to McCain, who spent more than $20 million undercutting his opponent. And although Palin's endorsement helped vault Miller into contention, campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto said voters did not "really think of him as Palin's candidate," but as a "tea party candidate."
Miller potentially could join tea party candidates Sharron Angle of Nevada and Rand Paul of Kentucky in the Senate.
"The message is that the establishment is no longer the biggest kid on the block," said Levi Russell of the Tea Party Express, which spent $600,000 on Miller's campaign. "To see one after another of these giants thought to be untouchable going down, I think that should send a quiver of fear throughout the Republican Party."
Alaska's primary result will not be certified for at least three weeks. Gail Fenumiai, director of the state Division of Elections, said 7,600 absentee ballots had been cast as of Monday, out of 16,000 requested. The state will accept absentee ballots for 10 days — 15 days for overseas or military ballots — as long as they are postmarked by Aug. 24.
With 100% of precincts reporting, Miller led Murkowski by fewer than 1,700 votes.
Murkowski seemed happy to wait the process out, saying at a news conference Wednesday that there "is much, much yet to be counted."
"It ain't over yet, folks," she said.
She reportedly also has been exploring a possible independent candidacy, but such a course would be difficult. "Her only option for being a candidate in the general election would be as a write-in candidate," Fenumiai said.
In Florida, Scott, who helped launch the healthcare giant Columbia/HCA — and who was ousted from its board during the massive fraud scandal that rocked the company in the 1990s — came into the race against McCollum as serious underdog. Scott didn't arise from the tea party movement, but his campaign benefitted from its support, and his message was congruent with its anti-big-government values.
McCollum, the attorney general and a well-known Florida politician, tacked to the right to appease conservatives, much as McCain did in Arizona. McCollum joined a lawsuit against the federal healthcare overhaul and adopted tough stances on illegal immigration.
But Scott, who funded ads attacking the healthcare plan during the Capitol Hill debate, took an even harder line, and hammered McCollum in waves of negative ads. He also played up his experience as a businessman.
"Scott came in and ran an unbelievable campaign. And he stuck to his message, that he was a successful businessman creating jobs," said April Schiff, a Republican strategist in Tampa. "Now, granted, he went negative — hard and consistently. And it worked."
Democrats argue that Miller's and Scott's candidacies won't play as well in November as they did in the primaries. But if Miller wins, he will face another unknown: Scott McAdams, the mayor of tiny Sitka, Alaska.
Scott will take on Democrat Alex Sink and independent Bud Chiles in Florida's gubernatorial election. Although many observers suggested Wednesday that Sink is now favored in that race, Schiff disagreed — especially given Scott's checkbook and the political environment.
"McCollum was considered a shoo-in. Anything can happen," she said. "Don't underestimate him."