The political prognosticators' carefully constructed house of cards came tumbling down in Tuesday's primary elections in Alaska, Arizona, and Florida-proving that the only poll that matters is when voters go to the ballot.
Alaska Republican voters served up the biggest surprise, creating a neck-and-neck race for Senate between the incumbent Lisa Murkowski and political newcomer Joe Miller. Polls from several weeks ago showed Murkowski comfortably in the lead, and very little national news leading up to the primary even touched on the Alaska GOP contest. Now, with 98 percent of precincts reporting, Miller leads Murkowski 51 percent to 49 percent. The winner will likely not emerge until all absentee ballots are counted, which could take a week or more.
Miller, an attorney and former judge, is more conservative than Murkowski and carried the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Palin defeated the incumbent's father, Frank Murkowski, to become governor, though she resigned before serving out her full term. Sen. Murkowski supports Roe v. Wade while Miller is pro-life, and the state ballots included a parental notification measure for abortions that drew many pro-life voters to the polls.
"Frankly, I think the pro-life vote was important," Miller said Tuesday night, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
Democrats in the Senate, knowing Murkowski is a moderate, court her vote. But while she voted with Democrats 18 percent of the time (and supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program), she voted against the stimulus, healthcare reform, and the financial regulatory bill. Murkowski had 22 times the money in the bank than Miller did-$1.86 million as of Aug. 4 to Miller's $84,000.
So while Alaskans may have ousted a powerful sitting senator, incumbents elsewhere survived. In the Arizona Republican primary for Senate, John McCain throttled his Tea Party-backed challenger J.D. Hayworth by 25 points with 82 percent of precincts reporting. In the Florida Democratic primary, Rep. Kendrick Meek edged out real estate billionaire Jeff Greene to become his party's nominee for the Senate, giving the GOP candidate, Marco Rubio, a better chance of winning in the three-way race with independent and former Republican Charlie Crist.
Muddying the waters for journalists trying to find a narrative in the primary results, the political outcast and wealthy healthcare executive Rick Scott beat Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a former congressman, in the Republican primary for Florida governor. McCollum was ahead of Scott in polls leading up to the primary. Scott poured at least $50 million of his own wealth into the race and overcame opposition from the Republican Governors' Association and the state GOP. Scott has the stain of a $1.6 billion fine for Medicare/Medicaid fraud at the Columbia/HCA hospital chain while he was CEO there. The Democratic nominee, state chief financial officer Alex Sink, has led Scott in recent polls.