Washington Veterans Take Senate Primaries

Damien Cave|The New York Times

Incumbent and establishment candidates beat back strong primary challenges, for the most part, on Tuesday in contests in five states across the country.

It was one of the last big nights of the 2010 primary season, before the all-important general election campaign that could decide who controls Congress and, inevitably, the warp and weft of the second half of President Obama’s term.

The results proved that in an election season where voter dissatisfaction is running high, established politicians cannot be counted out, even against insurgents who have considerable personal fortunes to bankroll their upstart campaigns.

In arguably the starkest example of that reality, the race to be Florida’s Democratic candidate for the United States Senate, Kendrick B. Meek, 43, a congressman from Miami, defeated Jeff Greene, a 55-year-old real estate mogul.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Getty Images

At the same time, in Arizona, Senator John McCain handily dispatched his Republican challenger, J.D. Hayworth, and Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, was also victorious, as was Senator Patrick J,. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont .

The most notable exception to the night’s dominant theme came in Florida’s Republican primary for governor. The wealthy outsider, Rick Scott, 57, a former health care executive whose smiling face became a ubiquitous presence in television advertisements here defeated Attorney General Bill McCollum, 66, in a blistering race where the fight often seemed personal.

Both the Senate and governor’s races in Florida carried particular national import, with Florida’s junior senator potentially tipping the balance over which party controls the Senate, and the governor set to preside over redistricting in this, the fourth-largest and biggest swing state in the nation. Till the bitter end on Tuesday, both primary battles were defined by lavish spending and caustic attacks. And the general election here does not hold the promise of greater civility.

Mr. Meek will face Marco Rubio, the Republican, and Gov. Charlie Crist. Mr. Crist abandoned the Republican Party in April when he looked likely to lose to Mr. Rubio, who won the Republican primary essentially unopposed on Tuesday night.

After Mr. Meek and Mr. Rubio officially captured their parties’ nominations, Mr. Crist released a statement calling Washington “a swamp of partisan bickering, finger-pointing and destructive political games” and saying “we need independent leadership.”

In the race for the governor’s mansion, Mr. Scott will face the Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, who won easily on Tuesday, and Lawton Chiles III, the son of a former governor, who is running as an independent.

During the Senate campaign, Mr. Greene repeatedly accused Mr. Meek of being a do-nothing career politician beholden to special interests — spending $23 million to get the message across. Mr. Meek, who seemed surprised at first by the challenge, hit back hard, accusing Mr. Greene of profiting from the foreclosure crisis and living a life out of touch, in mansions or on his yacht that traveled to Cuba and often counted Mike Tyson as a guest.

In his victory speech on Tuesday, Mr. Meek said he had spoken to Mr. Greene, who offered his support, but Mr. Meek received his loudest applause with a small swipe at his former opponent.

“Some people call it career politician," he said . "I call it public service.”

Joseph Williams, 48, a construction worker in Miami who rode to the polls on Tuesday on his pink bike, said he wasn’t swayed by the nastiness of the campaign. “I don’t look at that,” he said. “I look at who can help my community.”

He said he voted for Mr. Meek.

Edythe Murphy, 54, who lives in Mr. Meek’s Congressional district, also voted for him. She said he and his mother, former Representative Carrie Meek, who represented the area from 1992 to 2000, had come to her brother’s funeral. She said Mr. Meek had her vote the moment he entered the race.

Familiarity did not work for Mr. McCollum, though. He has been a politician in Florida for more than two decades, starting out as a congressman from central Florida.

Mr. McCollum’s challenger, Mr. Scott, managed to overcome the hurdle of name recognition; when he visited a Jacksonville Jaguars game just before Election Day, he was greeted like a celebrity. At a time when the economy is the No. 1 issue for voters, Mr. Scott outran criticism surrounding his role as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, a hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines for fraudulently billing the federal government. The investigation began while he was still at the company, though the fines were handed down after he left.

Mr. Scott had come under fire for refusing to release a deposition he gave days before he entered the governor’s race in a suit against Solantic, a chain of medical clinics that he founded.

And even on Tuesday, the assault continued. In Naples after lunch, Mr. Scott appeared at a church to vote, and was greeted not just by a small band of supporters, but also by a critic in a smock and surgical mask who heckled him with a bullhorn. He identified himself only as “Doctor Dave,” but later conceded that he was not a doctor.

But Mr. Scott won over voters in a tight race with his constant television presence and consistency on issues like job creation and immigration. Even when Doctor Dave attacked, supporters like Alyse O’Neill — an elderly volunteer — came to Mr. Scott’s aid. “I don’t know where you came from,” Ms. O’Neill told the heckler, before demanding to know whether he was a paid operative from the Republican establishment.

Mr. Scott provided attacks of his own. He first surged ahead by accusing Mr. McCollum of being soft on illegal immigration. When Mr. McCollum reversed himself and proposed a law in Florida similar to a tough measure recently passed in Arizona, Mr. Scott told voters his opponent was a liar.

In one television spot, his campaign also compared Mr. McCollum to a dirty diaper that voters needed to toss out.

The negative campaigning ended up hurting both candidates: polls showed that their unfavorable ratings went up over the course of the campaign.

For many voters, frustration with the status quo was often being balanced with distrust of newcomers. At least initially, many of the primaries seemed to offer mixed messages.

In Arizona — where turnout may have been suppressed by temperatures that reached the triple digits on Tuesday — polls had already shown Mr. McCain, 73, with a comfortable lead over challenger Mr. Hayworth, 51, a conservative former radio talk show host and congressman. Ms. Brewer became governor when Janet Napolitano stepped down to become secretary of homeland security.

Voters seemed to be confounded by their options. Many seemed be holding their noses at the polls.

“I don’t like either of them,” said Blanche Kinsley, 84, a retiree, who voted for Mr. McCain without much enthusiasm. “But I used to hear J. D. Hayworth on the radio and he annoyed me.”

In Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski also faced an insurgent candidate, the Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, but after outspending him significantly she appeared to have a comfortable lead heading into the primary.

In Vermont, Mr. Leahy defeated a newcomer, Daniel Freilich, a doctor and Navy veteran. But an insurgent also won in one of Oklahoma’s two Republican runoffs for House seats. In his first run for office, James Lankford, a youth camp director and political newcomer, defeated former State Representative Kevin Calvey in the Fifth Congressional District.

- Gary Fineout contributed reporting from Naples, Fla., Marc Lacey from Phoenix, and Catharine Skipp from Miami.