OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and her leading Republican challenger emerged from their primary Tuesday and will face off again in November in a race that could be pivotal in the battle for control of the Senate.
Murray and Republican Dino Rossi already have been campaigning against each other in anticipation of a fall matchup, and President Barack Obama came to the state Tuesday to bolster the Democrat's candidacy. The two had coffee at a bakery with small business owners, and Obama urged Democrats to "send her back to Washington."
Obama's presence shows how high the stakes are in the race. Republicans will likely need to oust Murray if they want take back control of the Senate.
Rossi, a real estate investor who narrowly lost bids for governor in 2004 and 2008, has been attacking Murray over her efforts to bring home federal dollars at a time when the debt is soaring, and over her votes on the financial regulation bill. He declared Tuesday that he would put the nation's capital on "a pork-free diet" if elected.
Murray, who is fourth in Senate Democratic leadership, says her experience and clout make her the right candidate for the job, and she says Rossi's opposition to financial regulation makes him "the best friend Wall Street and big banks can buy."
Washington was one of three states holding elections Tuesday.
Former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead narrowly led state auditor and Sarah Palin-backed Rita Meyer in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Wyoming. The winner will be favored to win in November and help the GOP pick up a governor's seat, with popular Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal stepping down after two terms.
A normally quiet special legislative election along the California coast became a more prominent contest because a Democrat victory could have put the party within one vote of a two-thirds majority in the Senate that is needed to approve budgets and tax increases. Obama endorsed the Democrat, but the Republican won.
In Washington, the Senate race was a "top two" primary, meaning the candidates with the highest vote totals move on to November.
With about 59 percent of the expected vote counted, Murray had 46 percent of the vote, compared with Rossi's 34 percent. GOP hopeful Clint Didier, a former tight end and Super Bowl winner for the Washington Redskins who has the backing of tea party activists and Palin, was running a distant third with 12 percent.
The results show how close the race might be for Murray. The fact that an 18-year senator is not able to pull a majority of the vote shows her vulnerability, but she could gain ground in November when the Democratic base is more motivated than in a primary that was essentially a foregone conclusion.
Murray said she has been underestimated "all my life. And that's just fine, thank you." She called the primary "really one step on the road to victory in November."
Murray has built a reputation as an underdog ever since she was told by a politician early in her career she was just "a mom in tennis shoes" who couldn't amount to much. The quote inspired her to get into politics and has been her catch phrase in past campaigns.
In Wyoming, Mead was clinging to a 714-vote lead out of 105,000 votes cast. The winner will face Wyoming Democratic Party chairwoman Leslie Petersen.