NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two powerful, incumbent lawmakers, hailing from opposite sides of the country and opposite ends of the political spectrum, fended off primary challenges from within their own parties on Tuesday.
Charles Rangel, a 21-term U.S. congressman and once-towering figure in New York politics whose stature was diminished by an ethics scandal, survived a vigorous challenge on Tuesday to win the Democratic primary.
In solidly Republican Utah, veteran U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch cruised to an easy victory Tuesday night against a Tea Party movement-backed challenger who managed to eke out enough votes at the state’s Republican nominating convention to force a primary run-off there.
But a Tea Party favorite in Oklahoma, former Navy pilot and political newcomer Jim Bridenstine, scored an upset victory over the Republican incumbent in that state’s 1st Congressional District, Representative John Sullivan.
Bridenstine, who flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, won 53.8 percent of the Tulsa-area district’s vote, according to unofficial returns. He will face Democratic nominee John Olson and independent candidate Craig Allen in November.
Rangel, who has represented Harlem in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1971 and is a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, was running against a crowd of younger politicians in a redrawn district that is now heavily Latino.
In a defiant victory speech in Harlem, he took a swipe at those who endorsed his opponents, especially the media, which he said had been “so hostile at times.”
“If they didn’t think after 42 years that I was the best qualified, I promise them that in the next two years they’ll have no question about the fact that you elected the best,” Rangel said.
Meanwhile Hatch, a 78-year-old stalwart of the Republican Party who was first elected to the Senate in 1976, commanded a decisive lead over former state senator Dan Liljenquist, who is 37. With 65 percent of precincts reporting, Hatch drew 66 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for Liljenquist, local media reported.
Heavily Republican Utah last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate more than four decades ago, so the victor in the state’s Republican Party contest is usually considered the presumptive winner of the general election in November.
In the New York district that includes Harlem and part of the Bronx, Rangel’s opponents included state Senator Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American who had strong Latino support, and Clyde Williams, who worked in the White House under former President Bill Clinton and got a boost when he won endorsements from the New York Times and the New York Daily News.
Rangel won 45 percent of the vote, topping Espaillat’s 40 percent, while Williams took 10 percent, according to the New York Times.
“We came slightly short this time,” Espaillat said, in conceding the race to Rangel.
In an interview earlier in the day, Williams swatted down talk that he might be angling to run in two years, after Rangel’s presumed retirement.
“This is not about any time in the future. This is about right now,” Williams said, adding that he was the only candidate talking about issues like unemployment, achievement gaps in education and disparities in health care.
On 125th Street, Harlem’s commercial spine, many voters approached on Tuesday night - younger people in particular - said they felt it was time for a change.
“He’s a legend. But he’s everything that the Congress represents, which is complacency, just being too comfortable,” said Salim Mhunzi, 27, a marketing strategist. He planned to vote for Williams who “knows how to maneuver with the DC crowd.”
But others said they were solidly in Rangel’s camp.
“He’s been a staple in our community for years and years,” said Thomas Berkley, a 53-year-old carpenter. “He’s my guy. He’s my man.”
Once one of the most powerful members of Congress, Rangel now walks slowly through the halls of the Capitol with a cane.
The House censured him in 2010 for ethics violations, including failing to pay some income taxes, and he stepped down as chairman of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means committee. But he retained his seat in the 2010 election.
Elsewhere in New York, primary day brought few surprises.
In a Queens congressional district that is 40 percent Asian, Democratic state Assemblywoman Grace Meng won the primary. Meng will face New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, a Republican, in her bid to become the first Asian-American member of New York’s congressional delegation.
And in central Brooklyn, state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries defeated City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther. The district is solidly Democratic and Jeffries, who touted his legislative achievements, is expected to glide to victory in November.
On the Republican side, Wendy Long, a lawyer who once clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, won the three-person primary to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in November.
Long’s most formidable opponent was U.S. Representative Bob Turner, who last year won an upset victory in a largely Democratic district to replace liberal Congressman Anthony Weiner, who had resigned in a sex scandal. That district was later eliminated in the once-per-decade redistricting.
In a statement, Turner pledged to work with Long to “unite all Republicans and conservatives” to defeat Gillibrand.
And in South Carolina, both parties held run-off races for the state’s newly drawn Seventh U.S. Congressional District
On the Republican side, attorney Tom Rice defeated former South Carolina lieutenant governor Andre Bauer. On the Democratic side, economist and university professor Gloria Bromell Tinubu defeated attorney Preston Brittain.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Dobner and Harriet McLeod in Charleston