By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona state treasurer and businessman Doug Ducey claimed victory on Tuesday in the race to be the Republican nominee to replace outgoing Governor Jan Brewer, who has clashed repeatedly with the White House over illegal immigration.
With border security issues high on the political agenda, Ducey held a convincing lead of 37 percent in the six-way race after most of the ballots had been counted. His closest rival, ex-mayor Scott Smith, took some 22 percent of the vote.
"We set out on this primary battle promising to give this race the best effort we could," Ducey told an enthusiastic crowd gathered at a downtown Phoenix hotel.
"Tonight our best effort has given us victory," he said.
Smith, who had been backed by Brewer and was considered more moderate than Ducey, conceded the race hours after polls closed. Christine Jones, 46, a former internet hosting company executive, finished third.
The Arizona governor's race was the highest profile battle among a series of state primary contests being held on Tuesday that also included votes in Florida, Vermont and Oklahoma.
Ducey will face Democrat Fred Duval, a former member of the state Board of Regents, in the Nov. 6 general election.
"Now the real race begins," said the staunchly anti-abortion Ducey, 50, a former chief executive of ice cream company Cold Stone Creamery, whose supporters include Tea Party favorite Texas Senator Ted Cruz and hardline Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
With the vote decided, Brewer joined Ducey on the victory platform, despite having backed Smith, praising his candidacy in an effort to unify the party for the race ahead.
He campaigned on rejuvenating the state's economy, improving education and shaking free of federal constraints. While calling for better border security, he avoided demands for comprehensive immigration reform and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that might alienate some voters.
Another key Arizona race was a tight Republican contest to challenge incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in a competitive U.S. Congressional race. That race remained too close to call late on Tuesday.
Arizona Democrats also chose a successor to U.S. Representative Ed Pastor, who is retiring after 11 terms from a heavily Latino district where there is no Republican candidate and no strong third party candidate.
Former State lawmaker and military veteran Ruben Gallego took the seat over long-time county and city politician Mary Rose Wilcox, who conceded the race late on Tuesday.
In Florida, Charlie Crist won the Democratic nomination for governor, taking almost 75 percent of the vote and setting the stage for a nationally watched governor's race against incumbent Governor Rick Scott, who cruised toward victory on Tuesday.
In Vermont, Republican Scott Milne looked poised to face incumbent Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin in November, with both establishing commanding leads after nearly 90 percent of voting precincts had reported unofficial results.
In Oklahoma, Democratic State Senator Connie Johnson edged challenger Jim Rogers in a runoff election 58 percent to 42 percent, with all precincts reporting unofficial results, according to the Oklahoma State Election Board.
Johnson will face U.S. Congressman James Lankford in a U.S. Senate contest to replace outgoing Senator Tom Coburn.
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Crispian Balmer)