WASHINGTON – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky dispatched his tea party challenger with ease Tuesday night, and first-time candidate Michelle Nunn won the Democratic nomination for a seat from Georgia, qualifying for fall elections that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.
On a six-state primary night, Alison Lundergan Grimes easily captured the Democratic nomination to oppose McConnell in Kentucky in a race expected to be among the costliest and most competitive in the country.
In Georgia, seven Republicans vied for the right to oppose Nunn in the fall, with a two-way primary run-off likely in July. Early returns showed Rep. Jack Kingston leading, businessman David Perdue a close runner-up and former Secretary of State Karen Handel running third. The seat was once held by Nunn’s father, Sam Nunn.
On the busiest night of the primary season so far, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and his Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, were nominated without opposition, clearing the way for their highly anticipated battle in November as the GOP labors to gain a Senate majority.
With Pennsylvania Democrats eager to gain control of their statehouse, businessman Tom Wolf moved ahead in the first returns for the Democratic nomination. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, unopposed for the GOP spot on the ballot, faces an uphill battle for re-election in November.
Idaho and Oregon also held primaries.
Republican primary struggles between establishment-backed conservatives and tea party-favored rivals were a dominant feature in several states, as they had been earlier in North Carolina and will be later in Mississippi, Kansas and Alaska.
Republicans must gain six seats to win a Senate majority, and party leaders have made it a priority to avoid the presence of candidates on the ballot this fall who are seen as too conservative or unsteady – or both – to prevail in winnable races.
McConnell, a five-term lawmaker and the embodiment of the GOP establishment, was pulling 60 percent of the vote in Kentucky. Challenger Matt Begin was gaining 36 percent.
Grimes, a prize Democratic recruit, was piling up 78 percent in a four-way race, winning her Kentucky primary with ease.
In Georgia, Nunn easily outpaced her Democratic rivals.
Along with Perdue, Kingston and Handel, Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun also were on the Georgia Republican ballot, and the presence of three incumbent lawmakers in the Senate race assured a large turnover in the state’s House delegation come January.
Some Republican primary voters said they had made up their minds based on more than the names on the ballot.
“I’m conservative, but I think most of the tea party people are a little too extreme,” said David Reynolds, 63, of Union, Kentucky, after voting in his state’s Senate race. He said he cast his vote for McConnell over Bevin.
McConnell was challenged by Bevin, backed by tea party groups in the state where they made their mark four years ago by sweeping GOP Sen. Rand Paul into office.
Out-maneuvered in 2010 when his preferred contender was defeated, McConnell responded this time by running ads featuring testimonials from Paul, and by hiring a top aide to Paul to run his own campaign.
For his part, Bevin stumbled through a campaign that included an appearance at a rally of cock-fighting supporters.
Plagued by low approval ratings, McConnell spent more than $9 million through the end of April on his primary campaign, according to Federal Election Commission figures. Bevin spent $3 million, and outside groups poured in $5 million more — a three-way deluge of television advertisements likely to continue through the fall.
The Georgia Senate race was fiercely expensive — $10 million had been spent on television commercials through the end of last week — and highlighted the divisions within the Republican party. Perdue relied on his background as a businessman, while Broun and Gingrey ran farther to the right. Handel sought to capitalize on the backing of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and Kingston had the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In Oregon, Republicans picking a nominee to oppose Sen. Jeff Merkley chose between state Rep. Jason Conger and Monica Wehby, a physician.
There were gubernatorial primaries in Georgia, Oregon and Idaho as well as Pennsylvania and Arkansas, where the statewide primary marked the first broad test of a voter ID law that Republicans passed after winning control of the Legislature in 2012.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal defeated two primary challengers. State Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of the 39th president, was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
Corbett’s poor ratings in Pennsylvania drew a crowd in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Among the contestants was businessman Tom Wolf, who said he would spend $10 million of his own money on the race, as well as Rep. Allyson Schwartz.
A smattering of Republican House members faced primary foes, notably Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho. Challenger Bryan Smith said the incumbent wasn’t conservative enough, and he drew early support from the Club for Growth in a bid to oust him.
Establishment groups rallied behind Simpson, and the Club for Growth quit running television ads for Smith weeks ago.
In Georgia, former Republican Rep. Bob Barr launched a comeback bid. Former Clinton administration official James Lee Witt ran unopposed in Arkansas for the Democratic nomination to the seat held by Cotton.
AP Writers Bill Barrow and Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.