Fun for Everyone in Florida, Connecticut, Minnesota, Wisconsin House Primaries

by Jessica Taylor August 15, 2012 · 1:22 AM EDT

Primary voters went to the polls in four states on Tuesday, solidifying general election contests and selecting new members in safe seats.

At least one member of Congress was going down in Florida’s primaries on Tuesday -- but in a surprise twist, it ended up likely being two.

In the 3rd District, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R) apparently lost narrowly in an upset to large animal veterinarian and first-time candidate Ted Yoho, by just over 800 votes, in a race that barely registered on anyone’s watch list. The Associated Press had not called the race as of midnight.

Stearns’ loss is slightly more surprising than Yoho’s victory considering state Sen. Steve Oelrich (who finished third) was regarded as the congressman’s top challenger. But Yoho benefited from that dynamic and ran largely unscathed.

The 12-term congressman’s probable defeat is also surprising considering that, in 2010, he faced his first primary in over two decades, ran an aggressive race, and prevailed with 71 percent. But, according to one GOP source in Florida with knowledge of the district, the congressman likely lost touch with grassroots conservatives and tea party types in the district, instead relying too much on his frequent appearances on FOX News due to his position as the influential chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight subpanel, where he led investigations into Solyndra and Planned Parenthood.

Meanwhile, Yoho ran some eye-catching ads that showed “career politicians” rolling around in the mud with pigs. Stearns was also handicapped by running in a redrawn district with 35 percent new territory, but the incumbent still outspent his opponents $740,000 to $176,000 for Yoho and $203,000 for Oelrich through July 25, and finished the race with approximately $2 million in the bank, unspent.

Stearns would be the fifth incumbent to lose a primary this cycle when not facing a fellow incumbent. Through Tuesday’s primaries, 98.6 percent of House incumbents seeking re-election have won renomination.

Yoho shouldn’t have any trouble winning this safe GOP district (that went 59 percent for John McCain) in the fall, but he doesn’t plan to stick around forever. In one of his ads, he pledged to serve a maximum of four terms.

In the Member vs. Member race of the evening, Transportation Chairman John Mica (R) handily defeated freshman Sandy Adams, 61 percent to 39 percent. The grudge match in the redrawn 7th District could have been avoided, but Mica chose instead to run against Adams (who represented more of the district) than in the open 6th District.

The rancorous race became a clash between the tea party wing of the party, backing Adams, and the establishment-backed Mica, who had long secured earmarks for the area. Mica dwarfed Adams in cash, and powerful conservative groups never really came to Adams’s rescue.

In the 2nd District, charismatic former state Sen. Al Lawson handily won the Democratic nomination over state Rep. Leonard Bembry, a Blue-Dog endorsed candidate and favorite of national Democrats to take on freshman Rep. Steve Southerland (R).

Lawson, who is African-American, has represented majority white districts before, but Democratic strategists are less optimistic about the upcoming general election, and Southerland appears to have an easier path to re-election. Move to Republican Favored.

In the new 9th District, Republicans failed to get their favored candidate, Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones, through the GOP primary. But former Rep. Alan Grayson (D), who didn’t have a primary challenge, helped ensure Quinones would lose to attorney Todd Long, by targeting Quinones with TV ads, and the House Majority PAC also jumped in with mail. The unpredictable Grayson may have had a more difficult time in his comeback bid against a Puerto Rican candidate even in this Democratic district, but now his path back to Congress is clearer. Move to Democrat Favored.

Republicans also picked their candidates in two solidly GOP open districts. In the 6th District, attorney and conservative author Ron DeSantis took a commanding 39 percent in the seven-way field, aided by backing from the Club for Growth. And in the open 19th District, conservative radio host Trey Radel used his local celebrity and endorsement from the outgoing Rep. Connie Mack IV, and his father, former Sen. Connie Mack III, to get atop the six-way primary with 30 percent.

Some of Florida’s most competitive general election races didn’t have many primary surprises. In the 18th District, both Rep. Allen West (R) and Democrat Patrick Murphy turned away their primary challengers, continuing their collision course this fall. We continue to rate this race as Toss Up/Tilt Republican.

In the 22nd, former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel easily won her Democratic primary over Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, 69 percent to 31 percent. Frankel now faces former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, a strong recruit for Republicans, who hope they can put this district in play with Hasner’s appeal to the district’s sizeable Jewish population, but we continue to rate it as Lean Democrat.

Florida’s 25th District has been an elusive target for Democrats, even as freshman Rep. David Rivera has reportedly been a target of FBI investigations into his finances since he came to Congress. But with no indictment yet, Democrats still have an uphill fight in this GOP-leaning district. Rivera will now again face Democrat Joe Garcia, who beat first-time candidate Gloria Romero Roses, 53 percent to 31 percent, but who impressed several observers with her campaign and earned the backing of EMILY’s List.

In Connecticut’s 5th District, Democrats got good news and bad news. Former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty won the Democratic primary with 43 percent over embattled state House Speaker Chris Donovan (34 percent) and Bill Clinton-endorsed Dan Roberti (23 percent). Donovan was the frontrunner for much of the race until multiple campaign aides were arrested for alleged campaign finance violations. Democratic strategists then became uneasy that they would be left with a nominee whose campaign was under federal investigation. Esty’s nomination calmed some of those fears.

But Republicans nominated moderate state Sen. Andrew Roraback, who is well-regarded by Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut. Roraback was outspent during the primary and his television ads weren’t particularly good, but he prevailed with 33 percent. Wealthy real estate investor Mark Greenberg surged at the end and finished second with 28 percent, wealthy businesswoman Lisa Wilson-Foley was third with a disappointing 19 percent, and 2010 candidate Justin Bernier finished fourth with 19 percent.

Roraback will need to upgrade his campaign and fundraising and will have to run well-ahead of Mitt Romney and Senate nominee Linda McMahon, but he looks like the type of New England Republican who can make this a real race. Move to Pure Toss-Up.

In the most closely watched race in Minnesota, former Rep. Rick Nolan (DFL) took the next step in his comeback bid in the 8th District, more than three decades after he left the House in 1981 after three terms. Nolan led the three-way field with 39 percent of the vote, besting 2010 6th District nominee Tarryl Clark (32 percent) and state legislator Jeff Anderson (29 percent). In the general election, Nolan faces Rep. Chip Cravaack, who is regarded as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the country.

And in Wisconsin, state Rep. Mark Pocan (D) looks headed to Congress this fall to succeed Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who’s running for Senate. Pocan defeated fellow state Rep. Kelda Roys 72 percent to 22 percent, in the 2nd District and will be heavily favored in this liberal Madison-area seat in November.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.