The biggest contest in Tuesday's primaries is Florida, where races that once looked like sure things got scrambled. It started with conservative insurgent Marco Rubio's challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist's bid for the GOP Senate nomination, followed by more surprises when wealthy political outsiders jumped into the battles for the Democratic Senate and GOP gubernatorial nominations in April and shook up those races.
But now, the theme of the Florida races may end up being "The Establishment Strikes Back" -- and the same can be said of the day's other two primaries in Alaska and Arizona.
Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek appears to have regained his footing in the fight for his party's Senate nomination in Florida, and Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum may also prevail in the GOP gubernatorial contest, although his race looks closer. A Meek victory would have consequences for Crist's chances because Crist is counting on Democratic and independent votes to win a three-way contest with the Democratic victor and Rubio. A Meek victory may cause Democrats to close ranks around him.
In Alaska, the question will be whether incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, with her GOP family pedigree, will overcome a Sarah Palin-backed challenger -- and signs are that she might. In Arizona, it looked at one time like Sen. John McCain's former maverick ways had left him vulnerable to a challenge from the right, but he now looks like a good bet to breeze through Tuesday's vote.
Here's a rundown on those races:
This is where the most action is Tuesday, with spirited gubernatorial and senatorial primaries in both parties – and with third-party candidates with famous names waiting in the wings in both contests.
Starting with the governor's race, Crist would have been a shoo-in for re-election, but in a decision that perplexed his fellow Republicans – and not a few independents -- Crist put his name in for a vacant Senate seat instead, even though a viable GOP candidate was already in the race. Many of Crist's critics considered this gambit ill-advised and self-indulgent. Whether it was either remains to be seen; one thing is certain, however, it threw Florida politics into turmoil
The most immediate beneficiary was McCollum, an uncharismatic, but highly experienced elected official, who declared his candidacy. Another was Democrat Alex Sink, whose quest for statewide office was given immediate credibility by the prospect of not having to challenge the popular Crist. Also emboldened to run was former health care executive Rick Scott, a wealthy Naples multi-millionaire who made a fortune in as the head of the mammoth Columbia/HCA hospital chain – and who spent a significant portion of his net worth on this race.
Scott's challenge in the GOP primary upended the dynamics. Spending what would eventually be an estimated $50 million to saturate the airwaves, almost all of it his own money, Scott initially forged ahead of McCollum. But Scott may have peaked too soon. McCollum, it turned out, amassed a formidable war chest of his own
. (He raised that money the old-fashioned way -- from special interests), and the McCollum camp used it to run negative ads reminding Floridians that under Rick Scott's leadership, Columbia/HCA was guilty of the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history, paying a fine of $1.7 billion.
Scott didn't buckle under the onslaught ("Attacks are life," he said), and he showed a puckish sense of humor at times: Asked recently if he intended, a la
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, to give away half his personal wealth, Scott suggested
that he was well on his way to doing that in this gubernatorial race. Still, his rawness has shown. Last Friday, Scott bailed out of a televised debate
with McCollum two hours before it was scheduled, sending his mother instead, surprising organizers and some 400 guests.
If such moves negate Scott's spending spree, the beneficiaries would seem to be, in order, (1) McCollum; (2) Democrat Sink, the state's chief financial officer, who hasn't had to spend at all to get her party's nomination; and (3) Lawton "Bud" Chiles, the son of former Democratic governor and senator Lawton Chiles, who is running in November as an independent.
Meanwhile, the Senate race is just as wild. Rubio may have been dismissed by the press, the Democrats, and even Charlie Crist as a Tea Party flash-in-the-pan, but Republican voters knew better. Rubio is a former speaker of the Florida House in Tallahassee, the son of Cuban exiles, and an attractive and charismatic campaigner. Rubio chased Crist out of the primary – and out of the Republican Party. The governor is now running in November for the U.S. Senate an independent.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Meek, an African-American congressman supported by former President Bill Clinton and the remnants of Clinton's Florida political operation, appeared to be cruising to an easy victory when another self-made millionaire jumped into the race. The would-be usurper is Jeff Greene, a colorful financier who bet on the collapse of the housing market – and found himself in the Forbes 400 as a result. It would seem an odd platform to run on, but Greene found early traction with his description of Meek as a "failed career politician" who was "part of the culture of corruption."
The adjective "failed" may have been needlessly pejorative, but this characterization initially hurt a candidate who inherited his mother's congressional seat when he was 28. But Meek fought back
with an attack of his own, asserting that Greene "helped fuel the economic meltdown." This wasn't much of a stretch; at the very least Greene certainly benefitted from others' misery, and as this reality dawned on voters, Meek caught him in the polls, and then surpassed him
. A Meek victory, in the words of Warren Harding, would be a return to normalcy.
However, it turns out, by the end of business Tuesday, Florida's $100 million primary
will be over – but then it all starts again, as the field will still have six ambitious candidates for two offices.
The Republican primary here is a clear contest between the state's GOP establishment and its insurgent wing. Nobody in Alaska politics has more establishment cred than incumbent Murkowski. She was appointed to office in December 2002 to succeed her father --Gov. Frank Murkowski, who had resigned his Senate seat to assume the governorship. This dizzying inside job generated disgusted voters from Juneau to the Aleutian Islands, but under the expert tutelage of Sen. Ted Stevens, Murkowski applied herself diligently to the main task of Alaska senators – bringing home the bacon – and two years later, she narrowly won re-election.
Republicans' dominance in Alaska virtually assures Murkowski of re-election in 2010 – if she survives Tuesday's primary. That seems increasingly likely. Not that she needed it, but the 53-year-old Murkowski may have been helped by Stevens' recent death in a plane crash. As some Alaska Republicans have mentioned recently
, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is known in the state's political circles for the people she fired, while Stevens is remembered for buildings, bridges, and projects he brought home. One of Stevens' last political acts before he died was to host a Murkowski fundraiser.
Her opponent is Joe Miller, a Kansas-born war hero and West Point graduate who practices law in Fairbanks. Miller, 43, has been endorsed by Mike Huckabee
– and, more relevantly – by Palin
. Palin has not campaigned in person with Miller, but she has taped ads that directly go after Murkowski and the Republican establishment she once bested, but did not slay.
In a robo-call
taped in advance of Tuesday's primary election, Palin urged
Alaskans to support Joe Miller on the grounds that Murkowski "has voted with the Democrats more than any Republican up for re-election this year." Palin added that the incumbent voted for the controversial bank bailout and has "waffled" on whether to repeal the Democrats' sweeping health care legislation.
Those are not popular positions in Alaska, but the public opinion surveys, not to mention the smart money (she's outraised Miller 20-1) strongly favor Murkowski.
In the gubernatorial primary, Palin's former lieutenant governor, Gov. Sean Parnell, faces two underdog challengers, while Democrats Ethan Berkowitz and state Sen. Hollis French vie for the dubious honor of facing Parnell in November. About the only suspense in the race for the state's single congressional seat – held by Rep. Don Young these past 37 years -- is whether the local newspaper can persuade him to take down his ad featuring the congressman holding a phony copy of the Anchorage Daily News with its made-up headline about "Obamacare
This could have been the Tea Party's greatest victory, but after throwing an early scare into McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, former conservative talk show host and onetime Rep. J.D. Hayworth stalled.
Hayworth's slogan this year has been his self-description as "A Consistent Conservative," but he has been consistently frustrated and outflanked by McCain, who at one point actually denied ever considering himself a "maverick"
– even though this was the watchword of not one, but two, John McCain-for-President campaigns.
who have covered McCain for the past dozen years hardly recognize him anymore, but journalists are no longer his constituency – angry or anxious Arizona conservatives are. As for J.D. Hayworth, he seems consigned to his fate, but he's hardly happy about it: On Monday, in an interview with CBS News
, Hayworth called McCain "cynical" and described him as "a political shape-shifter," a parting shot clearly calculated to help McCain's Democratic opponent in November – most likely a young Tucson city councilman named Rodney Glassman