Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde greets supporters at a GOP campaign office on Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Fitchburg, Wis. Hovde, a political newcomer, is in a four-person race for the Republican nomination against former Gov. Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Veteran Republican Rep. John Mica turned back a challenge from tea party freshman Rep. Sandy Adams in their Florida GOP primary Tuesday, but in a surprise, another longtime GOP congressman, Cliff Stearns, was trailing his tea party challenger in the state.
Political newcomer and veterinarian Ted Yoho was ahead of Stearns, a 12-term lawmaker, by less than 900 votes, complete but unofficial primary results showed.
Yoho's anti-incumbent campaign was helped by a television ad that had actors dressed as politicians in suits eating from a trough alongside pigs and throwing mud at each other.
Stearns, who is chairman of an investigations subcommittee for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has led high-profile probes of the failed California solar energy company, Solyndra, as well as Planned Parenthood. His newly redrawn conservative district ranges from the Georgia state line to Ocala and from Jacksonville's outskirts to the Gulf Coast.
Florida, along with Connecticut, Minnesota and Wisconsin, held primaries Tuesday.
Mica, a 10-term congressman who wields considerable clout as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is expected to win in November in his Republican-leaning district. Adams fell short despite backing from 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Mica and Adams landed in the same central Florida district due to redistricting, and the result was a nasty member-versus-member primary.
Mica's victory was a disappointment for tea party forces and other conservative activists hoping to add to big wins this year in the Indiana and Texas GOP Senate primaries. Tea party candidates scored major gains in the 2010 congressional races, but they've had mixed success since then.
The Florida contest was a prime example of the sharp split in the Republican party this election season between grass-roots conservatives and the GOP's establishment candidates.
Mica overcame criticism by Adams that the big-spending ways of longtime lawmakers and Washington insiders like him have fueled the nation's soaring debt, a charge that echoes the deep divisions in the GOP. The two tangled over spending for pet projects and who's more conservative.
For decades, some of the most conservative Republicans steered federal dollars to their home districts to boost local economies as well as their own political stock. More recently, anti-establishment conservatives, including tea partyers, have scored election wins by criticizing excessive spending by Washington's establishment players.
Also in Florida, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson will face Republican Connie Mack IV in November after winning handily in their respective party primaries.
In Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who served as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, was in a tough four-way race for a chance to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. His challengers have cast themselves as closer to today's more conservative GOP than the 70-year-old Thompson.
Thompson was governor for 14 years, but the party has become more conservative since he left the post for the Bush administration in 2001.
Former Rep. Mark Neumann boasted the most support from tea party groups including the Tea Party Express, the conservative Club for Growth, and Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. Polls suggested Neumann has surged in recent weeks, putting him in position to pull a late surprise.
Political newcomer and wealthy businessman Eric Hovde touted his fiscal conservatism. State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has the most direct ties to Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a high-profile recall election that roiled the state just two months ago.
The winner will take on Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is uncontested. Republicans see the Senate race in Wisconsin as a pickup opportunity as they try to gain majority control from the Democrats. The GOP needs to net four seats to wrest control of the Senate in November
In Connecticut, wealthy former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, the GOP's endorsed candidate, defeated former Rep. Christopher Shays in the Senate primary. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, is retiring.
Shays, a moderate who had represented a district anchored by Greenwich and other wealthy suburbs outside New York City since 1987, lost his seat in 2008. He had hoped his Washington experience could blunt McMahon's wealth and official party support.
McMahon spent about $50 million of her own money in her failed 2010 Senate race. It was the largest amount of money spent on any campaign in state history, as well as the largest amount per vote nationwide. She outspent Shays and attacked him as a career politician.
In Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary, Rep. Chris Murphy, who was the party's endorsed candidate, beat former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz. Looking past Shays, McMahon has already aired an attack ad against Murphy.