MIAMI (Reuters) - Representative Kendrick Meek won Florida’s Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday and will square off against Governor Charlie Crist and conservative Republican Marco Rubio in the closely watched November 2 election.
In a closely watched contest in Arizona, veteran John McCain claimed a commanding victory over conservative challenger J.D. Hayworth, after a bitter battle for the Republican Party’s pick to run for Senate.
In an election year marked by voter anger over a struggling economy, lost jobs and spiraling deficits, incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was narrowly trailing challenger Joe Miller, a conservative-ex judge backed by former state Governor Sarah Palin, in early tallies.
Voters are anxious about high unemployment and government spending in this election year, when 435 seats in the House are up for grabs in November, along with 37 Senate seats and 36 governorships.
In Florida’s hard-fought Republican gubernatorial primary, healthcare tycoon Rick Scott narrowly beat Attorney General Bill McCollum.
With more than 95 percent of precincts reporting in the battleground state, party stalwart Meek won the Democratic Senate primary with 57 percent of the votes against 31 percent for Greene, a political outsider.
Rubio, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, easily won the Republican Senate primary on Tuesday against two virtually unknown contenders. Crist broke with the Republican Party to launch an independent bid for the Senate earlier this year.
Florida is one of a dozen toss-up Senate contests across the United States that could decide the balance of power in November’s U.S. congressional elections and the fate of President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, Scott declared victory after edging out former U.S. congressman McCollum by 46 percent to 43 percent. He will now face Florida’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink, who easily won the Democratic primary for governor, in the race to succeed Crist.
With almost two-thirds of votes counted, McCain, a war hero and four-term Senator who ran for president against Barack Obama in 2008, led former Congressman and talk-show host Hayworth 56 percent to 32 percent.
In a victory speech, he acknowledged a “tough, hard-fought primary” against firebrand Hayworth, who hammered him as a party moderate who had spent too long in Washington.
“As gratified as I am for the support I received today, we all know this election isn’t over,” McCain, who reportedly outspent his rival by a 10-to-1 margin, told cheering supporters gathered at a victory rally in Phoenix.
“I promise you, I take nothing for granted, and will fight with every ounce of strength and conviction I possess to make the case for my continued service in the Senate, and the policies and principles I will advocate and defend if I‘m fortunate to be re-elected,” he added.
With more than two-thirds of the precincts reporting in Alaska, incumbent Murkowski lagged behind rival Miller by more than three points, with 48.2 percent to 51.8 percent.
Underdog Miller’s campaign was boosted by backing from conservative doyenne Palin and Tea Party Express grass-roots activists. It may take a week or more to determine the winner as rural and absentee votes are tallied.
In Vermont, Leahy overwhelmed Democratic rival Daniel Freilich by 89 percent to 11 percent, with two-thirds of precincts reporting, according to CQ Politics news. State electoral officials are set to release the finally tally on Wednesday.
Neither Scott nor Greene has ever held elected office. Both were virtual unknowns in their political parties and relatively new to Florida.
They shot to prominence by flooding the airwaves and mailboxes with ads portraying themselves as savvy businessmen who built companies and fortunes and could create jobs.
Greene became a billionaire by buying credit default swaps that rose in value when subprime borrowers defaulted on their home loans. Meek had tagged him a “meltdown mogul” and his record apparently weighed at the polls in a state still reeling from the U.S. housing crisis.
Scott appeared to have been unaffected by McCollum’s criticism of his record as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, the hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history.
Scott was never charged with a crime but was forced out of the company in 1997, leaving with a reported $10 million severance payment and $300 million worth of stock.
He said he knew nothing of the fraud that occurred on his watch, but the issue raised doubts about his leadership skills. Scott spent $39 million in the run-up to the primary, five times that of his rival. He and McCollum have both been leading critics of Obama’s signature healthcare reform law,
In a year when voters are distraught about the economy and deeply concerned about unemployment, analysts say Republicans may perhaps take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives and make big gains in the Senate.
Forty-six percent of registered U.S. voters would likely vote for Republican candidates in November and 45 pct for Democrats, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Bill Rigby in Seattle and Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Peter Cooney and Sandra Maler