5 Lessons from Tuesday's Primaries

Candidates with the deep pockets win, it pays to come out swinging, and a red tide is rising—Mark McKinnon on the takeaways from the most important races, from McCain to Murkowski and newcomer Allen West.

08.25.10 6:39 AM ET

Forget the media memes written well before Tuesday’s races were called, even before the polls opened: “Insiders win, outsiders lose.” And “Palin loses punch.” After Tuesday’s primaries in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, and Vermont, and a runoff in Oklahoma, the real truths emerged.

1. It’s ugly out there.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, a four-term congressman from Miami, beat newcomer and real estate tycoon Jeff Greene for Florida’s Senate Democratic nomination, but the battle was bruising. Taunts of “meltdown mogul” and “your mama” were typical. Meek, with endorsements from Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, was the victor for the evening, though outspent by his opponent nearly 5-to-1.

Candidates this primary season may have saved and created more jobs than any stimulus bill.

But the main event is still ahead. Meek will face two opponents—Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent, and former state House Speaker and rising star Marco Rubio (R). A new poll by left-leaning Public Policy Polling shows Rubio leading in the general election with 40 percent, followed by Crist at 32 percent and Meek at 17 percent. With the full backing of the party now behind him, Meek should gain some steam, and this could turn into a real three-way thriller.

Not to be outdone by the Democrats, bare knuckles emerged in Florida’s GOP gubernatorial race when state Attorney General Bill McCollum was called the worst of insults in today’s anti-incumbent environment, a “career politician,” by his opponent, newcomer and wealthy businessman Rick Scott. Despite attempts to muddy Scott with charges brought against Columbia/HCA when he was CEO in the 1990s, Scott prevailed in an upset. McCollum had been endorsed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. With millions spent on television tearing each other up, it’s no surprise a unity event planned for Wednesday in Tampa has been canceled. Scott’s win and deep pockets mean that Democratic coffers will be further drained in the Sunshine State.

But the biggest news from Florida is the GOP voter turnout. The Democratic Senate primary drew just over 900,000 voters; the Republican primary, more than 1.25 million. And Rubio may be the first Senate candidate in Florida history to get more than 1 million (1,058,140) votes in a primary.

Florida once again could provide election night drama in 2010.

2. Politics are not a poor man’s pastime.

Candidates this primary season may have saved and created more jobs than any stimulus bill.

Sen. John McCain (R), with a priceless endorsement from Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin, spent an Arizona Senate primary record of $20 million to defeat radio talk show host and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who spent about $3 million in the Republican race for the seat held by McCain since 1987.

Shushannah Walshe: A Palin Upset in Alaska?

John Avlon: A Reasons for Conservatives to Cheer

Complete coverage of the primaries
In Florida’s Democratic Senate race, Jeff Greene spent an estimated $24 million of his own money in his losing bid. Rick Scott reportedly poured more than $50 million of his own money into his victory over McCollum, who invested $21 million from fundraising, the Republican Party of Florida, and five separate electioneering groups. That’s nearly $75 million for a down-ballot race!

Of course, one of the modern-day founding fathers of self-funded campaigns was former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), who spent more than $100 million of his own money to finance three races, only to then lose in 2009 to the inimitable Gov. Chris Christie (R). Corzine’s record is now bested by former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R) in her race for governor of California. Whitman defends her investment in her campaign: “I don’t owe anyone anything expect for the voters, if they put me in office.”

Let’s hope John Adams (campaign budget unknown) was wrong on this one: “Birth and wealth together have prevailed over virtue and talent in all ages.”

3. It pays to come out swinging.

The comfortable days of incumbency are over. Just ask Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah who failed to win the nomination to serve his fourth term. John McCain knew this; that’s why he ran as if he were losing. McCain is aware there are only two ways to run a campaign: scared or unopposed. He hammered J.D. Hayworth. And proved once again that he is the ultimate survivor. McCain won in a landslide.

Incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska outspent her opponent, a decorated combat veteran, former judge, and Tea Party favorite, Joe Miller, by almost 20-to-1. She ran on, rather than from, her ability to deliver federal support for her state. Though Murkowski lost much of her early 30-point lead in polling, she fought back against the anti-establishment fervor. All the votes have yet to be counted, but if she holds her seat, she'll continue Alaska’s tradition established by former Senator Ted Stevens of being rewarded for delivering the political pork.

4. Blues are staying home with the blues.

No cataclysmic shifts occurred Tuesday night. A few surprises, but Democrats won the Democratic nominations, and Republicans won the Republican nominations. But independents went Republican in huge numbers. Republicans turned out big. And a lot of Democrats stayed home.

With flagging support from their base, Dems now face a dilemma: What are they going to run on in the general election? Like voters, they are running away from health care. And some are running away from Obama. By November, they may be running for the border.

5. And a red tide is rising.

Though liberals and the media are quick to call the Tea Party over with any loss for their candidates, Sarah Palin’s endorsement record is more wins than losses. Though not all Tea Party candidates made it out of the primaries, the movement has been a force, firing up voters, and forcing most Republicans to lean right to woo their vote.

Conservatives are getting educated and energized. There’s new blood and new life in the GOP. Take a look at Lt. Col (Ret.) Allen West, the new Republican nominee for Florida House District 22 endorsed by Palin. West is a dynamo, a fearsome warrior who quotes classic Greek with a warm, Southern charm. Put this guy on the watch list for future stars of the GOP.

In his acceptance speech Tuesday, West said, “We have crossed the Rubicon,” an allusion to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Ancient Rome.


The prelims are over and legions are now ready to do battle in November.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.