Murkowski Fights for Her Life, Scott Shocks the GOP Establishment and Ben Quayle’s the Gift that Will Keep Giving

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Tuesday night’s primaries reminded us that nothing this election season is as we expect it. A third Senate incumbent is fighting for her political life this morning: in a surprisingly close race Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski is trailing Tea Party fave Joe Miller by 2,000 votes with 98% of precincts reporting. The results of this race, though, won’t be known for more than a week as there are still 7,600 absentee ballots out of 16,000 issued outstanding and absentee ballots received within 15 days of election day can still be counted. Alaska primaries are often upended by absentee results: in 2008 Mark Begich trailed Ted Stevens by 3,000 votes before the absentee ballots put him over the top.

If Murkowski does lose she’ll join the ranks of Utah Republican Bob Bennett and Pennsylvania Democrat Arlen Specter. This would be the first time since 1980 three Senate incumbents lost their primaries, underlining voter unhappiness with the establishment on both sides of the aisle. Murkowski’s loss would be a particular blow to the party as she is the only woman on the Senate leadership team: she was elected unanimously by her colleagues to serve as vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference in 2009. She’s often been a maverick: conservative on economic issues but more moderate on social issues. She’s pro-choice, supports using federal money for embryonic stem cell research and was part of the Gang of 14 that headed off the nuclear option in the Senate.

Murkowski’s loss would also be a feather in the cap of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin whose endorsement of seeming long-shot Miller had many scratching their heads. Palin forced Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski, from his gubernatorial perch when she beat him in the GOP primary in 2006 after accusing Murkowski of corruption. Many had assumed her endorsement of Miller was the product of lingering bad blood between Palin and the Murkowskis, especially since Palin has rarely endorsed against a sitting incumbent.

Miller, 43, a graduate of West Point and winner of a Bronze Star for his service in the first Gulf War, is a Fairbanks lawyer who has never won an elected office. He won a contested GOP primary for a State House seat in 2004 but lost the general election to Democratic incumbent David Guttenberg.

In other races, Rick Scott shocked the Republican Party establishment in Florida by beating out the Sunshine State’s Attorney General Bill McCollum for the GOP nomination for governor. McCollum had the support of Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuilani and Dick Armey. Republican Governor’s Association Chairman Haley Barbour had been expected to fly down for to Florida to be with McCollum on election night and had planned to headline a Republican Party “Victory Committee” fund-raising dinner Wednesday night in Orlando for McCollum if he won. Instead, the RGA issued a rather terse statement on Scott’s victory. “The primary is over, Rick Scott is the nominee, the general election has begun, and our party now looks forward,” wrote RGA spokesman Tim Murtaugh. Scott, a former health care CEO, spent more than $50 million on the primary and could spend millions more in the general, though Dems are now liking their chances of picking up Florida’s governorship with their candidate, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Adelaide “Alex” Sink.

Also in Florida Kendrick Meek, the Dem establishment candidate, beat out real estate billionaire Jeff Greene, whose associations with Mike Tyson and Heidi Fleiss drew the wrong kind of headlines, in the Senate primary. Meek’s victory, though, puts Democrats in a tough spot. Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, once a Republican who left the Party to run as an Independent after it became clear former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio would win the GOP primary (which he did easily last night), has hinted that he might caucus with Dems if he wins. Crist is leading in most polls. So do Dems throw their full throated support behind Meek or hedge their bets with Crist?

In Arizona, Senator John McCain cruised to an easy, if expensive, win over former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. McCain spent $20 million on the primary. But McCain’s coattails didn’t help his endorsed candidates in two Arizona House races. Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, won a surprising victory, given recent revelations that he’d written racy posts on a local porn website, over former State Sen. Jim Waring in Arizona’s Third Congressional District. And McCain’s pick, former State Sen. Jonathan Paton, lost to Tea Party darling Jesse Kelly in Arizona’s Eighth CD.

In Vermont, there’s another race still to close to call. With 229 of the state’s 260 precincts reporting three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor were only a few hundred votes apart: Secretary of State Deb Markowitz had 15,681 votes, State Sen. Doug Racine had 16,255 votes and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin leads with 16,600 votes.