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Lisa Murkowski fights for her life; John McCain easily wins Arizona primary; Kendrick Meek, Rick Scott win Florida races

Updated: 5:35 a.m.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) appeared to be at risk of becoming the third Senate incumbent ousted in a primary this cycle as her underfunded challenger, attorney Joe Miller, took a stunning and unexpected lead in the race early Wednesday.

With 77 percent of precincts reporting, Miller -- who had held a narrow lead over his rival from the moment polls closed -- led Murkowski 52 percent to 48 percent, a margin of about 3,000 votes.

The results were a major upset in a race in which Murkowski held large advantages in name recognition and money; Miller had spent less than $200,000 as of early August, compared with more than $1.4 million for Murkowski.

But the "tea party"-backed Miller was boosted by an endorsement from Murkowski's longtime foe, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), as well as a controversial ballot measure, Proposition 2, that would require doctors to inform parents in order for a teenage girl to undergo an abortion.

The measure appeared to be turning out conservative-leaning voters in record numbers: As of early Wednesday morning, total turnout on Prop 2 exceeded the combined turnout in the Republican and Democratic Senate primaries by more than 10,000 voters, with 55 percent voting in favor and 45 percent opposed.

If Murkowski is defeated, she will follow Sens. Bob Bennet (R-Utah) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), both of whom were defeated in intraparty battles earlier this year. A Miller win would also be a major boon for Palin, who endorsed four other candidates in Tuesday's primaries, all of whom had won or were on track to win.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, it will be at least a week before the final results are known. The Alaska Division of Elections said more than 16,000 voters requested absentee ballots and as of Monday night 7,600 had been returned. The first count of absentees will be next Tuesday, with subsequent counts on Sept. 3 and 8, the newspaper reported.

(Photos: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska's native daughter)

Several other states held big races Tuesday. In Arizona, Sen. John McCain trounced former Rep. J.D. Hayworth in the state's Republican primary, a victory that virtually ensures the 2008 GOP presidential nominee will return to the Senate for a fifth term next year.

The size of McCain's margin over Hayworth was large but belied the danger that many in the Arizona Senator's inner circle perceived in the challenge from Hayworth earlier this year. McCain spent more than $21 million in the race -- primarily on television ads that both shored up his conservative credentials and cast Hayworth as something short of credible.

McCain will face Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman (D) this fall.

Meanwhile, Florida voters sent a mixed message to wealthy candidates running for office by handing businessman Rick Scott an upset victory in the Republican gubernatorial primary while dealing billionaire investor Jeff Greene a crushing defeat in the Democratic Senate race.

Scott, who spent upwards of $30 million of his own money on the race, defeated state Attorney General Bill McCollum and moves on to face state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D) in the fall campaign. Bud Chiles, the son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), is running as an independent.

Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek crushed Greene in the Sunshine State's Democratic Senate primary, setting up a three-way battle in the fall with former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) and Gov. Charlie Crist (I).

"Tonight, Floridians sent a clear message -- they want a real Democrat representing them in the U.S. Senate," said Meek in a clear shot at Crist who has worked to peel off party support from Meek in advance of the November election.

Greene made clear in his concession speech that he would back Meek in the general election. "I want you to know that I intend to support him every step of the way," Greene told a crowd gathered for his concession.

In something of a surprise, Florida Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd narrowly won re-nomination against a stronger than expected primary challenge from state Sen. Al Lawson. Funeral home owner Steve Southerland won the GOP nod in Boyd's 2nd district, which is likely to rise up Republican target lists.

By dint of his 2008 presidential bid, McCain's primary victory was the biggest story of the night -- even if the drama had long ago drained out of the contest.

In the spring, McCain allies expressed genuine concern about his prospects in an anti-incumbent political climate where conservatives seemed to be in the mindset to purge the party of any deal makers.

Palin's trip to aid her 2008 ticketmate made clear how serious McCain took the challenge from Hayworth who spent 12 years in Congress before losing to Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) in 2006.

McCain's strategy was simple: build up his own conservative bona fides while destroying Hayworth's.

He ran an ad touting his support for a fence at the Mexican border and one that used footage from an infomercial in which Hayworth appeared to label his opponent a "huckster".

Hayworth never recovered from the "huckster" ad -- obliterated by McCain's spending and the efficacy of his negative commercials.

While McCain's re-nomination race drew national headlines, it was Florida that hosted two of the more intriguing -- and dramatic -- contests.

In the Democratic Senate race, Meek, a Miami-area Congressman, watched helplessly for weeks as Greene used millions of his own dollars -- he is a billionaire -- to fund a series of television ads that fueled a surge past the establishment favorite.

Meek, smartly, waited until he could match (or come to close to matching) Greene on television in the final few weeks of the primary.

Meek's air presence coupled with a series of damaging stories about Greene's personal conduct -- and his 175 foot yacht -- eroded the self funder's standing with voters and led to a blowout victory for Meek.

Rubio dispatched a nuisance primary challenge to win the Republican nomination although he had done the yeoman's work far earlier when he drove Crist from the primary. Crist abandoned the GOP in late April, switching to a "no party affiliation" bid for Senate.

Polling suggests that Crist carries a slight lead over Rubio and a broader lead over Meek in the fall. It remains to be seen whether national Democrats will spend money in the state on Meek's behalf.

The race to replace Crist had taken a very nasty turn over the past month as McCollum and Scott each spent tens of millions on campaign ads bashing the other.

The entirety of the Republican establishment -- both in Florida and nationally -- lined up behind McCollum. Even the Republican Governors Association, which did not formally endorse McCollum, publicly rebuked Scott for an ad he aired tying McCollum to disgraced former state party chairman Jim Greer.

Democrats proclaimed themselves thrilled with Scott's victory."The Tea Party has prevailed in nominating a humiliated businessman who has already spent $50 million of his ill-gotten wealth to buy the governorship," said Democratic Governors Association executive director Nathan Daschle.

Even Republicans acknowledged that the Scott-McCollum primary battle had been tough on the party. "Intraparty struggles are often difficult to watch, and the contest in Florida has been a good example of that," said RGA spokesman Tim Murtaugh. "That said, the primary is over, Rick Scott is the nominee, the general election has begun, and our party now looks forward."

Voters in Vermont and Oklahoma also voted in primaries and runoffs Tuesday.

The Democratic gubernatorial primary in Vermont remained a nip and tuck affair with Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, state Sen. Doug Racine and state Senate President Peter Shumlin all running within a 1,000 votes of one another.

By Chris Cillizza  | August 25, 2010; 4:44 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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