WASHINGTON - 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 Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was locked in a tight race to hold on to her seat amid a surprisingly tough challenge from a Sarah Palin-backed conservative.
Joe Miller held about a 1,100-vote lead over Murkowski with approximately one-third of precincts reporting as the decorated Gulf War veteran looks to pull off one of the biggest political upsets of the year.
Miller sought to cast Murkowski as being too liberal and part of the problem in an out-of-control Washington.
Nominating contests in five states - Vermont also was voting, and Oklahoma held GOP runoffs - highlighted dominant themes of this unpredictable 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.
In the extraordinarily bitter 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.
The race is certain to be one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial contests this fall.
Equally nasty was 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 under way 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.
Crist, in turn, called for "independent leadership" and "not the same old partisan politicians who have brought the people's work to a halt." It was a not-so-subtle suggestion that his opponents were just that.
And the tea party-supported Rubio slapped at his rivals, saying: "If you like the direction that America is headed, if you think Washington is doing the right things, then there are two other people that are going to be on the ballot, and you should vote for one of them."
The tea party's clout was on the line in several states.
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 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.
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.