WASHINGTON - Democrats nominated two female candidates they hope will give them the rare opportunity to pick up Republican-held seats in the conservative South and potentially spare President Barack Obama from spending the final two years of his presidency dealing with a Congress fully controlled by the opposition.
Michelle Nunn won the primary Tuesday for the Senate seat long held by her father, Sam Nunn, and now occupied by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Her opponent will be decided in a July 22 runoff between the top two finishers in a seven-candidate race.
In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, a state official, will face a tougher challenge in taking on the Senate's top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both easily defeated their opponents, with McConnell fending off a challenger backed by the small-government tea party movement.
Republicans, who are likely to keep control of the House of Representatives, have strong prospects for capturing the Senate in November. With roughly a third of the Senate's 100 seats on the ballot, they need a net pickup of six seats. Democrats have been hurt by the retirement of some of their longtime senators in states that lean Republican. Also, some Democratic senators who swept into office when Obama was first elected in 2008 are now vulnerable as they seek re-election.
Among the Republicans' top targets is the southern state of Arkansas, where the Democratic incumbent, Mark Pryor, won his party's nomination Tuesday. He'll face congressman Tom Cotton, who won the Republican nomination.
Democrats are contending with Obama's low popularity and the historic pattern of a president's party generally losing seats in midterm elections. Republicans are making Obama and his troubled health care overhaul the focus of their campaigns.
The primaries are critical for Republicans, who saw an opportunity to win the Senate slip away in 2010 after party voters repeatedly picked candidates backed by the tea party movement. Many were too conservative or unsteady to win in the general election.
This time, Republican Party leaders and their supporters in the business community are determined to fend off tea party challenges. McConnell's strong showing in Kentucky with about 60 percent of the Republican vote Tuesday was noteworthy because that's where the tea party made its mark four years ago by sweeping Rand Paul into the Senate over an establishment candidate favored by McConnell.
McConnell said he would use his power to check Obama's agenda. "Make me the majority leader and Kentucky will lead America," he said in an appeal to home state pride.
Meanwhile Grimes, who defeated three Democratic rivals, 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 cheering supporters in Lexington.
In Georgia, the race for the Republican nomination was fiercely expensive - $10 million had been spent on television commercials through the end of last week. Businessman David Perdue secured one spot in the runoff; congressman Jack Kingston and former state official Karen Handel were battling for the second spot.
In Oregon, Republicans picking a nominee to oppose Sen. Jeff Merkley chose between state legislator Jason Conger and Monica Wehby, a physician.
There were also gubernatorial primaries in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, Oregon and Idaho.
Democrats hoping for a return to power in Pennsylvania nominated businessman Tom Wolf to oppose Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's bid for a second term.
Also, Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law, former congresswoman Marjorie Margolies, lost her bid to return to the House representing a district northeast of Philadelphia in a four-way Democratic primary.
In Georgia, Jason Carter, a state senator and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, was unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal easily defeated two primary challengers.