McCain, Murkowski Primary Results Send Mixed Messages

Establishment and insurgents both made gains in Tuesday's primary.


Tuesday's Senate primaries in Arizona, Florida, and Alaska were a test for the major players in the 2010 primaries: the establishment, wealthy political newcomers, and the Tea Party movement. Two establishment candidates prevailed, GOP Sen. John McCain in Arizona and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek in Florida. And the fate of a third hangs in the balance in Alaska, where officials determined that the race between eight-year incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sarah Palin-backed candidate Joe Miller is too close to call. 

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the 2010 elections.] 

The Alaska outcome will be decided by the 16,000 absentee ballots, and officials said it could take a week to determine the final results. Murkowski, the fifth ranking Republican in the Senate, said she will not concede the race in which she was about 2,000 votes behind Miller as of Wednesday morning. 

If Murkowski loses, she will be the seventh incumbent, and fourth Republican, taken down by voters this primary season. A Miller win would be seen as a substantial victory for Palin in her home state and for the Tea Party movement nationally, though a high-profile Tea Party candidate, J.D. Hayworth, lost to McCain in Arizona.

Miller, a Fairbanks attorney and former federal judge, was seen as a long-shot candidate. But thanks to robocalls from Palin, support from former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and lucrative endorsements from the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, Miller surged from being a relative unknown to a viable Senate candidate. From her Twitter account early Wednesday, Palin said a Miller win would be "a miracle on ice," a reference to the upset victory by the U.S. hockey team over the top-ranked Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. 

Meanwhile, McCain and Meek beat back challenges from wealthy opponents to win their party's Senate nominations. Their wins provide some momentum for other establishment candidates, but it is difficult to tell whether that strength will hold out through November. 

McCain spent over $20 million in his quest to defeat Hayworth, a former congressman who spent $2.6 million on his race and had the support of the tea party movement. The four-term senator and 2008 GOP presidential nominee surged in the polls in the days leading up to Tuesday's primary, a race which many were calling the fight for McCain's political life. McCain will face Democrat Rodney Glassman, a former Tucson city councilman, in November. Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer also won her party's nomination Tuesday. 

Meek now enters a high-profile, three-way Senate race against , a tea party favorite, and Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist. Recent polls show Meek trailing them by nearly 20 points.

Since Crist alienated himself from the state's conservative base by leaving the GOP, he and Meek will compete for Florida's independent voters. Meek is also at a fundraising disadvantage, having $2.6 million cash on hand compared to Crist and Rubio, who were able to avoid the expenses of primary competition. Still, Meek was able to overcome the challenge from Democratic billionaire Jeff Greene, who spent $14 million of his own money on his campaign, by 57 to 31 percent.

[Read 10 Top Self-Funding Senate Candidates.]

In Vermont, another long-term incumbent sailed through his primary. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy beat physician and Navy veteran Daniel Freilich. Leahy will be seeking his seventh term and is expected to win his November race against Republican Len Britton.