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Big bucks, ugly battles dominate Tuesday primaries

By Peter Hamby and Steve Brusk, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Five states have primaries Tuesday
  • Two billionaires are angling for upsets in Florida
  • McCain is facing the biggest Republican primary challenge of his Senate career
  • A little-known Tea Party candidate is taking on an incumbent senator in Alaska

(CNN) -- As voters in five states go to the polls on Tuesday, big-dollar challenges to veteran politicians dominate the top races.

The big storylines: Two billionaire political newcomers spent millions of their own money to try to pull upsets in Florida, Arizona Sen. John McCain is expected to fend off the biggest Republican primary challenge of his Senate career and a little-known Tea Party candidate is taking on an incumbent senator in Alaska.

Voters will also pick the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in a wide-open Vermont race, and decide the runoff winners in two Oklahoma Republican primaries.

Florida

Two deep-pocketed political novices came virtually out of nowhere this spring, but managed to transform a pair of primaries into two of the most outlandish races of the 2010 cycle.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat from Miami, had a clear path to his party's Senate nomination until April, when Jeff Greene, a billionaire real estate investor who made a fortune betting against the housing market, decided to fund his own bid.

Both campaigns quickly trained fire on one another, with Meek dubbing Greene a "Meltdown Mogul," and raising questions about his colorful bachelor life and his friendships with scandal-tainted celebrities like Mike Tyson and Lindsay Lohan.

Greene linked Meek to an indicted Miami real estate developer and questioned Meek's commitment to Israel, a weighty charge in a state with a large population of Jewish voters.

Whichever candidate comes out on top Tuesday faces an uphill battle, as both Meek and Greene badly trail Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent, and Republican Marco Rubio in public polling.

Republicans are also grappling with a divisive primary in the governor's race between Attorney General Bill McCollum, backed by the state's party establishment, and Rick Scott, a millionaire former health care executive.

Scott has spent $50 million of his personal fortune since joining the race in April, mostly by blanketing Florida's expensive television and radio airwaves with advertisements questioning McCollum's conservative bona fides.

Scott rocketed to the front of the polls, but stumbled on the campaign trail as he faced questions about his management of two health care companies that went on to face legal problems.

The race has become so nasty that McCollum refused to say whether he'd support Scott as the GOP nominee if he loses on Tuesday.

"The question should be asked of him: Will he endorse me?" McCollum told reporters in Orlando on Monday. "Of course, if it were to come out the other way for some reason, I would have to sit down with him and be persuaded. I see lots of problems with him, personally, right now. It would be very difficult for me."

McCollum now holds a narrow 4-point lead, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Monday, with more than 20 percent of primary voters undecided.

Arizona

The race between McCain and former congressman and conservative talk show host J.D. Hayworth started off nasty, and didn't get any friendlier down the home stretch. Forced to spend $20 million in the campaign, McCain was driven to the right on some issues as Hayworth accused him of not being a true conservative.

Hayworth called McCain "cynical," and told CNN's Jessica Yellin, "Twice denied the presidency, Mr. McCain believes that his place in history is to now become the lion of the Senate. Well, you only become the lion of the Senate by lying to your constituents in Arizona. He will rush back to D.C. and lurch so far to the left to win the acceptance of the elites in Washington D.C. that if he is granted a last term in office, not only will we have been treated to the unfortunate denigration of Mr. McCain from a senior statesman to a political shape-shifter, we will have him there as a shameless panderer to the left."

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers responded, "Congressman Hayworth is going to lose this race. It's just sad that he's going down with such little dignity."

Fights over immigration fueled the race, as Hayworth and Tea Party activists challenged McCain's previous efforts at reform, which called for tougher border security, but included a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented workers.

At a Tea Party rally two weeks ago, Hayworth pulled a word from a McCain letter on immigration which first surfaced in April, saying it was time to "regularize the status of John McCain," and remove him from office.

"He may try to change the terminology," Hayworth added. "Indeed, John McCain was sending out letters earlier this spring offering the boilerplate denial, saying, 'Well, you know I oppose amnesty.' And then in the next paragraph saying, 'We must grant concessions to these people and regularize their status.' That's the new term [for amnesty].

"To put an end to amnesty once and for all, to secure our borders, to end any of this misguided talk about open borders, it is time to 'regularize' the status of John McCain. Send him back here to be a citizen among us," Hayworth said to applause.

McCain's campaign said "regularize" means "to follow the law." And even as he was criticized at the rally, he was in the middle of a three-day, six-stop statewide tour with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, whose signing of State Bill 1070 earned her wide praise from conservatives, and made her the symbol of opposition to amnesty.

McCain during the campaign strongly defended the Arizona law, calling the situation on the border "the worst I've ever seen," and called for the Obama administration, which was critical of the law, to do something about it.

"If you don't like the bill -- the legislation that the legislature passed and the governor signed in Arizona -- then carry out the federal responsibilities, which are to secure the border," he said.

Alaska

Incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, with one of the best-known political names in the state, is pitted against against an unknown challenger. But attorney Joe Miller's campaign picked up the support of the Tea Party movement and the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In a last-minute robocall for Miller, Palin went after Murkowski saying, "Lisa Murkowski has voted with the Democrats more than any Republican up for reelection this year. She waffled on the repeal of ObamaCare, co-sponsored cap and trade and voted for TARP." But some think that endorsement of Miller is at least partly personal; Palin had tangled with Murkowski's father Frank and defeated him in the 2006 governor's race.

The Tea Party made its support known again in the final hours, promoting the more than half million dollars it put into Miller's campaign.

Other races

-- Also in Alaska, voters decide on gubernatorial nominees -- Gov. Sean Parnell, who replaced Palin when she resigned last year, faces two challengers in the GOP primary. Two Democrats are battling for their party's nomination.

-- Longtime Republican Gov. Jim Douglas is retiring in Vermont, giving Democrats hope of competing for the seat. Five Democrats are running in what's considered a tight race. The winner will face GOP Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie.

-- In Oklahoma, two U.S. House Republican nominations will be decided in a runoff. In the 2nd District, Republicans think they have a chance for a pickup this fall against conservative Democrat Dan Boren. They'll decide his challenger Tuesday. And two Republicans are battling to likely replace Rep. Mary Fallin, who's running for governor.

-- A 10-way Republican primary in the Arizona 3rd Congressional District race to replace retiring Rep. John Shadegg has attracted national attention because Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, is one of the candidates. The winner will face Democrat John Hulburd in the fall in the heavily red district.

-- Another House race to watch: Blue Dog Democrat Allen Boyd faces a challenger on his left in a primary in northern Florida's 2nd Congressional District.

Alaska

Incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, with one of the best-known political names in the state, is pitted against against an unknown challenger. But attorney Joe Miller's campaign picked up the support of the Tea Party movement and the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In a last-minute robocall for Miller, Palin went after Murkowski saying, "Lisa Murkowski has voted with the Democrats more than any Republican up for reelection this year. She waffled on the repeal of ObamaCare, co-sponsored cap and trade and voted for TARP." But some think that endorsement of Miller is at least partly personal; Palin had tangled with Murkowski's father Frank and defeated him in the 2006 governor's race.

The Tea Party made its support known again in the final hours, promoting the more than half million dollars it put into Miller's campaign.

Other races

-- Also in Alaska, voters decide on gubernatorial nominees -- Gov. Sean Parnell, who replaced Palin when she resigned last year, faces two challengers in the GOP primary. Two Democrats are battling for their party's nomination.

-- Longtime Republican Gov. Jim Douglas is retiring in Vermont, giving Democrats hope of competing for the seat. Five Democrats are running in what's considered a tight race. The winner will face GOP Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie.

-- In Oklahoma, two U.S. House Republican nominations will be decided in a runoff. In the 2nd District, Republicans think they have a chance for a pickup this fall against conservative Democrat Dan Boren. They'll decide his challenger Tuesday. And two Republicans are battling to likely replace Rep. Mary Fallin, who's running for governor.

-- A 10-way Republican primary in the Arizona 3rd Congressional District race to replace retiring Rep. John Shadegg has attracted national attention because Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, is one of the candidates. The winner will face Democrat John Hulburd in the fall in the heavily red district.

-- Another House race to watch: Blue Dog Democrat Allen Boyd faces a challenger on his left in a primary in northern Florida's 2nd Congressional District.

CNN's Rachel Streitfeld and Jeff Simon contributed to this report.