WASHINGTON -- Veteran Arizona Sen. John McCain sailed to nomination for a fifth term Tuesday over a challenger with tea party support, while big-spending political novice Rick Scott pushed past an experienced insider in Florida's Republican gubernatorial primary as voters split on the merits of establishment candidates vs. outsiders.
In other big-name races, Rep. Kendrick Meek prevailed for Florida's Senate Democratic nomination over upstart Jeff Greene, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska counted on voters to reward political experience as she faced a Republican primary challenge 10 weeks before the general election.
Nominating contests in five states -- Vermont also was voting, and Oklahoma held GOP runoffs -- highlighted dominant themes of this election year, including anti-establishment anger and tea party challenges from the right. But the early results indicated that if there was a single pattern to the night, it was the lack of one.
Just two years after reaching the pinnacle of the GOP establishment as the party's presidential nominee, McCain found himself facing a Senate primary challenge by ex-radio host and former representative J.D. Hayworth, who tried to tap into anti-Washington sentiment coursing through the electorate. So McCain spent more than $20 million and cast Hayworth in a negative light.
It worked, and McCain, who has never lost a statewide race, won the Republican nod in his home state. He now enters the general election as the favorite to win a fifth term.
"This was a tough, hard-fought primary," McCain said at a victory party -- and he quickly looked to the fall campaign. "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."
In the GOP race for Florida governor, Scott's financial might and criticism of his opponent as a typical tax-raising politician proved too much for Bill McCollum, the state's attorney general and a former congressman with the support of national party leaders in Washington.
Scott, who made a fortune in the health care industry and spent $39 million of it blanketing the state with TV ads, will face Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer who sailed to the Democratic nomination. It is certain to be one of the most contested gubernatorial races this fall.
In the Democratic Senate nomination fight in Florida, Meek toppled Greene, a big-spending real estate tycoon whose links to boxer Mike Tyson and former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss drew headlines. The four-term congressman will compete against Republican Marco Rubio, who easily secured the GOP nod, and Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican who is running as an independent, in November.
The general election campaign got underway immediately.
"Floridians want leaders who will fight for them all the time, not just when it helps their own political career or advances an extreme philosophy," Meek said after his victory, poking at both Crist and Rubio without naming them.
The tea party's clout was on the line in several states.
Like McCain, Murkowski of Alaska worked to overcome a challenge from a candidate backed by the fledgling coalition that questioned her conservative credentials. She faced Sarah Palin-endorsed Joe Miller, a lawyer.
In Vermont, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, first elected in 1974, coasted to renomination for what is likely to be a new term in November.
Tuesday's primaries played out before a backdrop of persistently high unemployment, voter disillusionment with Republicans and Democrats alike, and low job-performance standings for both Congress and President Barack Obama.
In previous contests earlier this year, voters have shown both a readiness to fire veteran lawmakers and a willingness to keep them.
The tea party has had mixed success. It won big in Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado and Utah GOP Senate contests but lost just about everywhere else.
But no matter Tuesday's outcomes, there was no question that the tea party has provided an enormous dose of enthusiasm to the GOP heading into the fall campaign. And that's dangerous for a dispirited Democratic base.
Arizona Republicans also held contested primaries to challenge incumbent Democratic Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell. And the House seat being vacated by retiring Republican Rep. John Shadegg attracted 10 Republican hopefuls, including Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle.
In an indication of voter dissatisfaction in both parties, Florida Democratic Reps. Allen Boyd, Corrine Brown, Kathy Castor, Ron Klein and Suzanne Kosmas, and GOP Reps. Cliff Stearns and Vern Buchanan all faced primary challengers. But all the incumbents either secured their nominations or were on the verge of winning.