ATLANTA — With turnout predictions modest at best, Republicans strained to outdistance each other Tuesday in high-profile races from Georgia to Oregon that will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's tenure.
Obama and his signature health care overhaul pose a challenge this fall for many Democrats — none more than Georgia's Michelle Nunn, seeking a Senate seat in a state that Republicans control. In an NBC News interview and in remarks later Monday to The Associated Press, Nunn refused to say whether she would have voted for the legislation. Instead she said she plans on "continuing to answer the question by talking about where we need to go in the future and how we need to move forward."
Nunn and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — also expected to win her party's nomination Tuesday — are the Democrats' best, and perhaps only, shots at picking up Republican-held seats. A Democratic victory in either state would seriously dent Republican hopes of gaining the six seats required to gain the Senate majority.
As Nunn scrambled Tuesday over her answer, Republicans in her state were choosing among seven candidates in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Tuesday's primary should send the top two GOP finishers to a July 22 runoff.
Meanwhile in Kentucky, a 10-month, $12 million primary campaign came to a close, with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell poised to beat Matt Bevin in a contest that failed to live up to its pre-election buzz. The end of the primary will launch a long-awaited battle between Grimes and McConnell, a marquee Senate race that blends big money with gender politics and the power of incumbency.
Ahead by as much as 3-to-1 according to some polls, a confident McConnell joked that his own choice was "a tough call" as he voted with his wife at Bellarmine University Tuesday morning.
Bevin, a tea party-styled insurgent at one point considered a threat to McConnell, faded after he attended a rally to legalize cockfighting. He pushed back Tuesday at suggestions that his campaign is evidence that the tea party is losing its four-year drive to upend the Washington establishment.
"This nonsense that somehow this movement ... is dead is bunk," Bevin said. "We know the passion ... and the conviction to do the right thing, that this is alive and well."
Senate races also were on the ballot in Arkansas, Idaho and Oregon on Tuesday, and there were primary contests for governor and some congressional seats in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Idaho, Georgia and Oregon.
The Kentucky and Georgia Senate races have attracted international attention and impressive sums of money. Candidates already have spent more than $32 million, with $26 million by Republicans.
Yet both contests were likely to be settled by a small share of the electorate in a midterm year marked by antipathy toward the president and both parties in Congress.
In her official capacity as secretary of state, Grimes predicted a 30 percent turnout across Kentucky's two party primaries Tuesday. Only the 1.2 million registered Republicans can vote in the McConnell-Bevin primary.
In Georgia, several of the top Senate candidates said they expected 600,000 or fewer ballots cast, at least 80,000 less than a crowded primary for governor four years ago. Georgia has about 5 million active registered voters who can choose either major party's ballot in Tuesday's open primary.
Polls suggest former Secretary of State Karen Handel, Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue will battle for two runoff posts. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey are also running.
In Kentucky, McConnell looked past the primary. "There's nothing the president and his allies would like better than to defeat the guy you are looking at," he said, casting Grimes as a stand-in for Obama.
"She's able to raise money because she is running against me," McConnell said. "I'm able to raise money because I am me."
Grimes and Nunn have tried to frame themselves as centrists and capitalize on voters' obvious frustrations: Obama's job approval rating is in the low 40s nationally, and approval for Congress in recent years has consistently been less than half that figure.
Nunn continued those tactics Monday amid a rhetorical dance on Obama's health care law.
Nunn previously has criticized her potential Republican rivals for a "run to extremes," including in their absolute opposition to the health law. And she's called for states, including Georgia, to expand Medicaid eligibility under the law. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who also faces a primary challenge Tuesday, has refused.
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.