updated 9/19/2006 12:35:46 PM ET 2006-09-19T16:35:46

Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican Mike McGavick were heavy favorites to nail down nominations for the U.S. Senate, but that marquee race wasn't the top draw in Tuesday's primary.

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With both Senate competitors seemingly certain of nomination, they were taking a back seat to hotly contested state Supreme Court races that have generated record spending by friends and foes of the incumbents.

Three justices, including Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, were pressed by well-financed challengers.

Judiciary targeted
Alexander, who has served in the state judiciary for 33 years, could be the biggest casualty of the high-stakes effort by homebuilders and others to promote replacement candidates. Justice Susan Owens and, to a lesser extent, Justice Tom Chambers, also were being targeted.

The Alexander and Chambers races were being decided in the primary, since both were two-person races that will send one nominee alone to the November ballot. The Owens seat, with five candidates, was generally expected to require a runoff in November.

2006 key races

Scattered legislative, congressional and local races also enlivened the ballot in some locales but Secretary of State Sam Reed was predicting a low turnout, perhaps in the 35 percent range.

The judicial races, raised from their usual obscurity by heavy television and direct mail advertising, were generating some interest, but without hot statewide partisan elections, not even the convenience of voting by mail was building turnout numbers, Reed said.

Given the heavy reliance on vote-by-mail - it's the exclusive method in 34 of the 39 counties - the primary has been under way for more than two weeks. No actual votes can be tallied until poll closing at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Senate races seem certain
The Senate primary was a low-key, suspense-free affair despite its potential significance in determining which party controls the upper chamber.

Cantwell, the first-term incumbent who narrowly defeated Republican Sen. Slade Gorton six years ago, and McGavick, who ran Gorton's 1988 campaign and then headed the senator's staff, were odds-on favorites for their respective nominations.

Cantwell faced four rivals for the Democratic nod, including anti-war activist Hong Tran. Cantwell persuaded her biggest anti-war critic, Mark Wilson, to drop his challenge and take an $8,000-a-month campaign post.

McGavick was heavily favored in a field of six Republicans. He stepped down from the top spot at Seattle-based Safeco Corp. to make the race for his old boss's seat.

Both encountered some turbulence. Besides having to deal with Iraq war dissenters, Cantwell was hit with a news account that she helped arrange more than $11 million in federal money for projects benefiting clients of a longtime lobbyist pal. Her campaign denied any ethical misstep.

McGavick, meanwhile, was knocked off stride by his own revelation that he had been pulled over for drunken driving in 1993. Reporters later dug up the police report and determined that he had downplayed the incident and misstated some facts. He apologized.

Expensive battle for control
With record spending of $30 million expected by those two candidates by their Nov. 7 finale, the Washington race is closely watched because it could be pivotal to Democrats' hopes of taking back control of the Senate.

The state also had scattered U.S. House primaries, including intraparty challenges to Reps. Jim McDermott, a 7th District Democrat, and Doc Hastings, a Republican in the 4th District. The state's hottest House race, though, the 8th District, involved no primary contest for either the freshman incumbent, Republican Dave Reichert, or his Democratic challenger, Darcy Burner.

A handful of legislative districts had contested primaries. In the 43rd House District, for instance, six Democrats were vying for the nomination to succeed Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who's running for the Senate.

Some Eastern Washington Republican districts were picking nominees. And in the 35th District, conservative Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon was in the fight of his life, challenged by Kyle Taylor Lucas, who had the backing of labor and many Democratic activists.

Seven of the 24 state Senate incumbents on the ballot and 28 state House incumbents had no challengers.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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