WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dispatched his tea party challenger with ease Tuesday night, and Democrats turned to two women, Alison Lundergan Grimes to oppose him in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn to fight for Georgia, in elections next fall with control of the Senate at stake.
Setting up a third high-profile race, Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and his Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, were unopposed for their parties' nominations.
On the busiest primary night of the year to date, Democrats eyeing a return to power in the Pennsylvania state Capitol nominated businessman Tom Wolf to oppose Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's bid for a second term.
Republican primary struggles between conservatives and tea party-favored rivals were a dominant feature of the evening, as they had been earlier in North Carolina and will be later in Mississippi, Kansas and Alaska. Republicans must gain six seats to win a Senate majority, and party leaders have made it a priority to avoid the presence of candidates on the ballot this fall who are seen as too conservative or unsteady - or both - to prevail in winnable races.
McConnell, a five-term lawmaker, was pulling 60 percent of the vote in Kentucky. Challenger Matt Bevin was gaining 36 percent.
For Democrats, Tuesday night was a chance to showcase challengers - both of them women - in the rare states where the party has hopes of picking up GOP-held seats.
Grimes was piling up 76 percent in a four-way race, winning her Kentucky primary with ease.
She and McConnell wasted no time turning their attention to the fall campaign.
"Make me the majority leader and Kentucky will lead America," McConnell said in an appeal to home state pride, adding that he would use his power to check President Barack Obama's agenda.
Grimes said Obama wasn't on the ballot, and responded forcefully to some of the campaign barbs that have already come her way. "I am not an empty dress. I am not a rubber stamp. And I am not a cheerleader. I am a strong Kentucky woman," she told supporters in Lexington.
In Georgia, Nunn, whose father was a four-term Democrat senator from the state, easily outpaced her rivals and awaited the outcome of the GOP primary to learn her opponent for the fall.
Seven Republicans vied for that nomination, and a two-way July 22 runoff appeared a certainty. With votes counted in 45 percent of the precincts, businessman David Perdue led with 30 percent of the vote, Rep. Jack Kingston had 29 percent and former Secretary of State Susan Handel was running third with 19 percent.
Along with Perdue, Kingston and Handel, Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun also were on the Georgia Republican ballot, and the presence of three incumbent lawmakers in the Senate race assured a large turnover in the state's House delegation come January.
Some Republican primary voters said they had made up their minds based on more than the names on the ballot.
"I'm conservative, but I think most of the tea party people are a little too extreme," said David Reynolds, 63, of Union, Kentucky, after voting in his state's Senate race. He said he cast his vote for McConnell over Bevin.
Bevin was backed by tea party groups in the state where they made their mark four years ago by sweeping GOP Sen. Rand Paul into office.
Outmaneuvered in 2010 when his preferred contender was defeated, McConnell responded this time by running ads featuring testimonials from Paul, and by hiring a top aide to Paul to run his campaign.
For his part, Bevin stumbled through a campaign that included an appearance at a rally of cock-fighting supporters.
McConnell spent more than $9 million through the end of April on his primary campaign, according to Federal Election Commission figures. Bevin spent $3 million, and outside groups poured in $5 million more - a three-way deluge of television advertisements likely to continue through the fall.
Republican Corbett's poor ratings in Pennsylvania drew a crowd in the Democrat gubernatorial primary. Wolf outpaced a Democrat field that included Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who began the campaign as the front-runner.
Arkansas primary voters set up a race between Republican Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman who also served in the Bush organization, and former Democrat Rep. Mike Ross.