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Ariz., Fla., Alaska Primaries Pose Test for ‘Insiders’

August 25, 2010 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Arizona, Alaska and Florida are among the states to have the latest round of pre-midterm primaries. Political Editor David Chalian assesses the winners, losers and surprises of the night.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: yesterday’s primaries.The anti-establishment wave swept up a few candidates, but other insiders coasted to easy victories.

The stunner of the night came in Alaska, where incumbent Lisa Murkowski found herself locked in a close race with attorney Joe Miller in the Republican Senate primary. Miller leads Murkowski by fewer than 2,000 votes out of more than 91,000 tallied. Officials still have to count up to 16,000 absentee ballots, a process that won’t begin until next week.

Miller, a Tea Party favorite, also had the support of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Murkowski had an 11-to-1 cash advantage over Miller and sought to play up her Senate seniority. If she loses, Murkowski would join Utah Republican Bob Bennett and Pennsylvania Democrat Arlen Specter as the third Senate incumbent to fall this year.

Four-term Arizona Republican Senator John McCain was able to avoid a similar fate in his primary. The 2008 presidential nominee spent some $21 million on his way to trouncing former Congressman J.D. Hayworth by 25 points.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): I promise you, I take nothing for granted. I will fight with every ounce of strength and conviction I possess to make the case for my continued service in the Senate and the policies and principles I will advocate and defend, if I am fortunate enough to be reelected.

JIM LEHRER: In Florida, former health care executive Rick Scott spent nearly $50 million of his own money to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He bested state Attorney General Bill McCollum by four points in a contest dominated by negative attacks from both sides.

RICK SCOTT (R-Fla.),Gubernatorial Candidate: Some of you might have noticed that this was a hard-fought race.

(LAUGHTER)

MAN: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

RICK SCOTT: We have talked a lot about our differences, but, tonight, it’s time to remember those things that bring us together.

JIM LEHRER: Scott’s victory sets up a general election matchup with Democrat Alex Sink, Florida’s chief financial officer.

ALEX SINK (D-Fla.),Gubernatorial Candidate: Now, my opponents have spent the last few months attacking each other, but you and I know what we need is a governor who is going to attack Florida’s challenges.

JIM LEHRER: Spending millions didn’t guarantee victory, however. Billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene drew on close to $30 million of his own money in a failed attempt to win Florida’s Democratic Senate nomination.

Congressman Kendrick Meek prevailed instead, overcoming his financial disadvantage to defeat Greene by 26 points.

REP. KENDRICK MEEK (D-Fla.), Senatorial Candidate: There are so many Floridians that are counting on a real leader to be the next United States senator. And, tonight, Floridians spoke.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JIM LEHRER: Meek will face two opponents this fall, independent Governor Charlie Crist and Republican Marco Rubio, in what is expected to be one of the marquee races of the midterms.

And to NewsHour political editor David Chalian.

David, first, Alaska — what happened in that Republican Senate race?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, this is a story we have seen time and again now throughout this primary season on the Republican side, Jim. What happened there is that Lisa Murkowski, an incumbent senator, fell victim to this Tea Party energy that’s inside the Republican Party on the right wing.

Remember, these primaries are a certain sect of the Republican Party, the activist sect of the Republican Party, that shows up in a primary in the off-year. And the Tea Party has a big pull with those groups. And, so, that’s part of what happened here.

The other thing that happened here was Palin power. I mean, Sarah Palin, who has a long history with the Murkowski family — there’s no love lost there — she defeated Senator Murkowski’s dad, Frank Murkowski, to become the governor of Alaska in 2006*. And she went out and endorsed Joe Miller, the Tea Party candidate.

She had her husband out there for him. She had her dad out there for him. She put in a big effort, rallied her troop, and really put him on the map. So, between sort of the natural Tea Party element out there and then Sarah Palin sort of injecting her energy up in Alaska in there as well, I think — and, again, it’s not over yet.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID CHALIAN: These ballots still need to be counted.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And what’s the timeline on that, and when we are going to finally get a result?

DAVID CHALIAN: You mentioned there were 16,000 absentee ballots sent out.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID CHALIAN: About half of those have been returned. They will start to be counted next week. We’re still a week away from getting a final result here. But talking to people up in Alaska, they think it’s going to be very tough for Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent senator, to overcome the disadvantage she already has in the vote count. But — but those absentee ballots will be decisive, because there are more of those than there is a difference between the two candidates right now.

JIM LEHRER: Now, John McCain in Arizona, he ran hard, and he ran scared, and it worked.

DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt about it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID CHALIAN: And I bet Lisa Murkowski wishes she had used his playbook. He understood early on what was going on this cycle across the country. And, although J.D. Hayworth, the former Republican congressman, may never have been a real serious threat, John McCain said early on — and you heard him say in the…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID CHALIAN: … speech last night — “I take nothing for granted.”

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID CHALIAN: And so he raised the money, which is pretty easy for him, obviously, with a national donor base. And he went negative early to define J.D. Hayworth as a non-serious contender, a huckster, he called him in one of his ads.

And that was key. He relentlessly acted like he was in the fight of his life out there in Arizona for the Republican nomination, shored up his conservative credentials, brought in Sarah Palin, convinced the Tea Party element in Arizona to stay on the sidelines and not get involved supporting Hayworth — all of those pieces. It was a very effective campaign. And it’s a lesson for every single incumbent in this volatile year that you really can’t take anything for granted.

JIM LEHRER: It’s amusing — I don’t know if amusing is the word — it’s interesting that a lot of the pundits are already saying, now that McCain has won — in other words, he’s fought off his right — he will now — he will now coast back to the center and will get back to the old maverick John McCain.

What’s the latest on that idea?

DAVID CHALIAN: I think we will all be watching his actions very closely when he gets back to the Senate next year, assuming he wins in November, which he’s obviously the big favorite to do so.

I don’t know that that is necessarily true. I think that John McCain may have made a permanent shift here in his character. He will be looking out for his legacy. It’s probably his last term. He will probably look to do something big. But he has already gone down such a path of opposition to Obama that we’re a long way from that. Do you remember Barack Obama threw a dinner in his honor the week of the inauguration to try to show that we can come together?

JIM LEHRER: Never happened.

DAVID CHALIAN: Never happened.

JIM LEHRER: Never happened. Now, Florida, the — and the governor’s race, that was a big surprise on the Republican side.

DAVID CHALIAN: Yes, on the Republican side. First, let’s, again, look at a national story that Florida helps tell for the night as well. And that is Republican enthusiasm. They have got it on their side. If you just look at the number of people that turned out to vote in the Republican primary for the governor’s race, vs. the number of Democrats that showed up for their very competitive Senate primary, it’s not even close. It’s like 1.2 million showed up vs. 900,000.

Republicans are enthused to go the polls. Rick Scott, the former health care executive, is the Republican there that won last night. He also was a Tea Party favorite. He has a lot of baggage, though. He ran a hospital corporation that had to settle a lot of Medicare fraud fines. And so there’s a lot of baggage there. And it’s a divided Republican party. Bill McCollum, the opponent in that race, has not endorsed him yet, and so the Republican Party starts out the general election very divided in Florida.

JIM LEHRER: That one got nasty, didn’t it?

DAVID CHALIAN: Oh, it got really nasty. I mean, the ads were just insane back and forth. And, in fact, if you look at Rick Scott’s poll numbers today, his negatives are very high. Forty-nine percent of the people in Florida have a negative impression, an unfavorable view of Rick Scott. He is going to have to work real hard in a battleground place like Florida to heal that.

JIM LEHRER: Now the Senate race in Florida.

DAVID CHALIAN: And here now, of course, Kendrick Meek, the Democrat, the establishment guy won, right?

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes.

DAVID CHALIAN: Jeff Greene, a billionaire, was spending $26 million against Kendrick Meek.

JIM LEHRER: His own money.

DAVID CHALIAN: Of his own money.

JIM LEHRER: Just like Scott.

DAVID CHALIAN: Just like Rick Scott. But Rick Scott, his $50 million investment worked out.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID CHALIAN: His $26 million investment, it seems — I think he lost the race by 26 points, Jim. That’s a point per million dollars that Jeff Greene spent in this race that he lost the election by.

This is an example, though, of the establishment coming through here. For Kendrick Meek, now the hard part begins. His big challenge is the general election. It’s that three-way race between Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist, the independent, and Kendrick Meek. He starts out the real underdog in that general election.

JIM LEHRER: OK. David, thank you, again, very much.

DAVID CHALIAN: My pleasure.

* This transcript has been corrected. Palin defeated Frank Murkowski in 2006, not 2002.