FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — If there were any doubts that former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist would be accepted by Florida Democrats, they were cast aside as he overwhelmingly earned the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott on a day when four states chose candidates for statewide office.
Crist easily defeated former state Sen. Nan Rich on Tuesday, while Scott coasted in his own primary toward a general election matching the state's last two Republican governors. It's a contest that's already been brutally negative with Scott spending millions on ads attacking Crist since he announced in November that he was seeking his old job with his new party.
"It's unbelievable! What is it, $30 million in trash talk? Oh my gosh!" Crist said after he was declared the primary winner. "Floridians are smart and fortunately we know each other. I've been their governor before, I've been their attorney general, their commissioner of education, a state senator from Tampa Bay. We have a relationship and this new guy who came in from Texas a few years ago is trying to say things about me that aren't true."
In Arizona, State Treasurer and former CEO Doug Ducey won the Republican gubernatorial primary, riding to victory with a campaign that focused on his blend of government and business experience in serving as a state official and building an ice cream company into a national brand.
The race to replace Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, began as a fairly quiet contest focused on health care and jobs before shifting abruptly when thousands of immigrant children began pouring into the country and some settled in the state.
In the quest for right-leaning Republican primary voters, the six candidates quickly staked out hard-line positions on immigration and repeatedly attacked the Obama administration for failing to secure the border.
The crowded primary was a test of Brewer's strength. She endorsed former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith. Democrat Fred DuVal was unopposed in his primary and will face Ducey in November.
Vermont Republicans nominated businessman Scott Milne over three other candidates to face Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin, who also leads the Democratic Governors Association. Other statewide offices, including an at-large House seat, also are on the ballot.
Oklahoma Democrats chose state Sen. Connie Johnson as their Senate nominee over perennial candidate Jim Rogers. Johnson will be a general election underdog against Rep. James Lankford for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.
Unofficial returns in Florida, with 99.9 precincts reporting, showed Crist with a nearly 3-to-1 lead over Rich, who had been campaigning for governor longer than Crist has been a Democrat. Crist was heavily favored, but it was important for him to post a wide margin to demonstrate that his new party has embraced him four years after he lost a Senate race to Republican Marco Rubio. Crist was an independent then.
His partisan whipsawing in the past, Crist was immediately praised Tuesday night by the leader of his new party. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, led a chant of "Charlie! Charlie!" during his victory party.
"Voters can see that there's only one candidate for Florida who shares their priorities and it is the next governor of the great state of Florida — Charlie Crist!" Wasserman Schultz told a packed room. "Elect the people's governor! On to victory for Charlie Crist!"
Democrats view the seat as a key pickup opportunity in a state President Barack Obama won twice.
Crist, 58, previously won three statewide races as a GOP candidate, and it wasn't that long ago that he called himself a Ronald Reagan/Jeb Bush Republican. He was once considered a potential running mate for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and had the backing of GOP leaders in a 2010 bid for Senate — until Rubio used an image of Crist hugging Obama to chase Crist from the primary. Crist then ran as an independent, but he ended up a distant second. In 2012, he endorsed Obama for a second term.
Scott, 61, who had minor primary opposition, has already spent millions of dollars on ads criticizing Crist and pointing out how he has changed from opposing to supporting same-sex marriage, gun control and Obama's health care plan.
A Crist vs. Scott general election matchup would be sure to feature a high-profile debate over Obama's health care overhaul. Pressured by Republican legislators, Scott abandoned an initial call to expand Medicaid under the Democratic law. Crist has blasted the decision and, unlike many Democrats on the ballot this year, is an unapologetic cheerleader for the Affordable Care Act.
Crist now has to make sure he locks in those Democrats who have been skeptical of his conversion. Even some of Crist's supporters indicated their vote was more about beating Scott than supporting Crist.
"I like Nan Rich, but I didn't want to waste my vote," 65-year-old Lavon Wright said outside a Gainesville precinct. "I think Crist can beat the current governor."
In Oklahoma, some Democratic voters said their Senate runoff was likely a futile exercise.
Phil Defree, 64, a retired civil servant in central Oklahoma, voted for Johnson but said he had no expectations that Democrats can defeat Lankford in a state where Obama failed to win a single county in either of his national victories.
"Oh, no! Not in Oklahoma. I'm a realist," Defree said.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Florida; Kristi Eaton in Guthrie, Oklahoma; and Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.