WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky dispatched his tea party challenger with ease to win nomination to a new term Tuesday night, and now looks to the November elections that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.
McConnell, a five-term lawmaker and the embodiment of the GOP establishment, was pulling 60 percent of the vote. Challenger Matt Bevin was gaining 36 percent.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, a prize Democratic recruit, won Kentucky's Democratic Senate primary with ease and was piling up 79 percent of the vote in a four-way race. She will challenge McConnell in the fall in a race expected to be among the costliest and most competitive in the country.
Voter turnout was expected to be low, but the Kentucky State Board of Elections reported that almost 27 percent of registered voters casted ballots Tuesday.
Some 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.
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 drew a challenge from Bevin, backed by tea party groups in the state where they made their mark four years ago by sweeping GOP Sen. Rand Paul into office.
Out-maneuvered 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 own campaign.
For his part, Bevin stumbled through a campaign that included an appearance at a rally of cock-fighting supporters.
Plagued by low approval ratings, McConnell spent more than $9 million through the end of April on his primary campaign, according to Federal Election Commission figures. Grimes spent $3 million, and outside groups poured in $5 million more -- a three-way deluge of television advertisements likely to continue through the fall.
Going into the primaries, McConnell and Grimes knew it would be one of the country's most expensive and contentious Senate races, the AP said.
With the nomination in McConnell's hands, it could set up two years of intense fighting on the future of the nation's health care law. He says the Kentucky Senate race was a microcosm of the national political discussion.
"We will be in the crosshairs of this great national debate about what American ought to be like," McConnell said. "Do we want to be like western European countries, with big debt, high taxes, strangulated regulations? Or do we want to be a country that's still based on opportunity and initiative and the chance to realize your dream without the government trying to micromanage every aspect of your life."
McConnell would like to stay in the Senate, but change jobs, from minority leader to majority leader. Republicans would have to pick up six seats for that to happen, wresting control of the Senate from Democrats. As majority leader he'd be in charge of stopping a president's agenda that he says has devastated Kentucky's coal industry and upended the country's health care system.
Grimes considers herself a "fierce opponent" to Obama's new emission standards for coal-fired power plants, a big issue in Kentucky's coalfields.
"Nothing about this election is going to change who the president is," Grimes said in an interview. "But Kentuckians do realize that we can finally change who is in Washington, D.C."
Residents who want to participate in the Nov. 4 general election have until Oct. 6 to register.