Image:Lisa Murkowski
Becky Bohrer  /  AP
"Seniority actually means something in the Senate," Sen. Lisa Murkowski has said of the Alaska primary race.
updated 8/25/2010 7:22:54 PM ET 2010-08-25T23:22:54

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski fought to save her job Wednesday, locked in a stunningly tight Republican primary race against a political novice backed by Sarah Palin and tea party activists. The outlook was far brighter for another incumbent, Sen. John McCain, who won handily in Arizona.

With 98 percent of election day precincts counted, Murkowski trailed Joe Miller by 1,960 votes out of more than 91,000 counted. The race was too close to call, with as many as 16,000 absentee votes and an undetermined number of provisional or questioned ballots, remaining to be counted starting on Aug. 31.

Murkowski would be the seventh incumbent — and fourth Republican — to lose in a year in which the tea party has scored huge victories in GOP Senate primaries and voters have shown a willingness to punish Republicans and a handful of Democrats with ties to Washington and party leadership. Miller is a Gulf War veteran and self-described "constitutional conservative."

It also was an outsider's night in Florida's GOP primary for governor, with big-spending upstart Rick Scott toppling veteran insider Bill McCollum, the state's attorney general who had the support of national party chiefs.

Five states — Arizona, Vermont and Oklahoma also voted — held nominating contests Tuesday, 10 weeks before the general election. The races highlighted dominant themes of this volatile election year, including anti-establishment anger and tea party challenges from the right.

Elsewhere, the establishment prevailed.

McCain easily cinched his party's renomination — and likely re-election this fall — by dispatching former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who had tea party support. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee spent more than $20 million on the primary. Rep. Kendrick Meek cruised to the Democratic Senate nod in Florida against a wealthy political newcomer. And a slew of Republican and Democratic members of Congress withstood primary challenges.

But Murkowski's unexpectedly tough battle and Scott's victory underscored the unpredictability of this election year ahead of November, when control of both houses of Congress will be at stake.

The 2010 midterm elections already have seen six incumbents lose. Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, was ousted by his party. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., Parker Griffith, R-Ala., Bob Inglis, R-S.C., and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., failed in primary bids.

Now Murkowski might.

Appointed in 2002, she is seeking her second full term and was expected to coast to re-election.

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Miller initially looked like a long shot, but he started to gain steam as the primary approached. He drew the backing of the Tea Party Express, a California-based group that's run ads, held rallies and questioned Murkowski's conservative credentials. Also, Palin, the former Alaska governor, and her husband, Todd, rallied behind Miller in the final days, lending their name to get-out-the-vote efforts.

Like Utah's Bennett, Murkowski had stressed that seniority mattered in the U.S. Senate, where years of service translated into billions of dollars for roads, ports, bridges and other home state projects. Alaskan voters were reminded of that earlier this month when former Sen. Ted Stevens died in a plane crash. For four decades, Stevens consistently delivered federal dollars that transformed the 49th state.

The race also had personal overtones.

Palin trounced Murkowski's father, Frank Murkowski, in a 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary that launched the 2008 vice presidential nominee's national political career. And when Palin abruptly resigned her governor's post last summer, Lisa Murkowski said she was "deeply disappointed that the governor has decided to abandon the state and her constituents before her term has concluded."

The GOP primary winner will be favored in November over Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, who won the Democratic nomination.

In Florida, Scott's financial might and criticism of his opponent as a typical tax-raising politician proved too much for McCollum, a former congressman, in the bitter GOP gubernatorial race.

Scott, who made a fortune in the health care industry and spent $39 million of it blanketing the state with TV ads, resonated with GOP voters as a "conservative outsider" who could run state government like an efficient business and reduce taxes. He overcame accusations that he was in charge when his former hospital conglomerate paid $1.7 billion to settle federal Medicare fraud charges.

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That issue is likely to come up again as he faces Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, who sailed to the Democratic nomination.

The peril establishment candidates face was not lost on McCain, who was at the pinnacle of the GOP hierarchy just two years ago as the Republican presidential nominee.

"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," McCain told supporters in Arizona, quickly focusing on the fall campaign in his bid for a fifth term.

Also in Arizona, the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle won the Republican primary for an Arizona congressional seat. Ben Quayle emerged from a crowded field in the fight for an open seat in a Republican-leaning district in the Phoenix area.

Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, first elected in 1974, coasted to renomination for what is likely to be a new term in November.

In the Democratic gubernatorial race, state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin claimed victory Wednesday in the five-way contest. "It appears that we have won," Shumlin told The Associated Press.

He held a lead of fewer than 200 votes over state Sen. Douglas Racine, with Secretary of State Deb Markowitz a very close third.

The AP has not called the winner because the race is still too close with nearly all the votes counted.

If the vote count holds, either Racine or Markowitz could ask for a recount.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who did not face a primary opponent.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Voter anger on display

  1. Transcript of: Voter anger on display

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: To politics now. Here at home, some hard-fought primaries were decided last night. One of them still up in the air at this hour. And our chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd , who is also our political director, is with us tonight with what we've learned from all of it so far. Chuck , good evening.

    CHUCK TODD reporting: Oh, it's been a wild, wild year so far. Anyway, let's get to the latest numbers out of Alaska . Tea party and Sarah Palin -backed newcomer Joe Miller is now clinging to a 1500 -vote lead over Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski , someone with a very famous name in Alaska . Now, Murkowski 's campaign believes there are as many as 15,000 uncounted ballots, absentee ballots. We might not know, though, until after Labor Day . That's when all of the ballots could be counted before a winner is declared.

    Joe 50.8% 46,620 Miller Republican

    Lisa 49.2% 45,128 Murkowski Republican/Incumbent

    TODD: But still, even in limbo, this election and what happened to Murkowski is resonating in official Washington in both parties as they're taking lessons from Murkowski 's campaign. She made a decision to run on a record, talk about what it was like to bring home federal money back to Alaska . It didn't resonate with Alaskans or her opponent, as he explained last night at his semi-victory party.

    Mr. JOE MILLER: It is not a partisan Republican message. It is a bipartisan message that, look, the federal government is broken. We need to get back in control of the destiny of Alaska here in this state. And that's a message that carries to both parties.

    TODD: Look, this was Alaska , a state that gets a lot of federal government dollars. And that message resonated. John McCain was as vulnerable as Murkowski , but he chose to forego talking about his 30-year record of Washington accomplishment. Instead, he focused only on his opponent. He went negative early and often on J.D. Hayworth ; and guess what, he won by 20 points. Of course, this all started in Florida , which also held primaries last night. But the main event was supposed to be Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio fighting for the Republican nomination for Senate , but as you'll recall, Brian , Charlie Crist left the party. He's now running as an independent. We had the Democratic primary last night. Kendrick Meek is the Democratic nominee. So Crist , Marco Rubio , Kendrick Meek having this three-way race, which, of course, could be decisive on who controls the US Senate . All of it, Brian , is about voter anger at the federal government , and it's playing inside the Republican Party , and we saw it from Florida to Alaska .

    WILLIAMS: Chuck Todd in our Washington newsroom tonight with a wrap-up of all of it. Chuck , thanks.

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