For a third time, Republican Dino Rossi will carry his party's hopes as the challenger for Washington's top political fight, advancing to a November matchup with three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

Republican Dino Rossi will advance to a November matchup with three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in a race that could determine control of the Senate.

Rossi, the former Sammamish state senator and two-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, easily outpaced former NFL player Clint Didier, a Republican who courted tea-party voters, to place second in Tuesday’s primary.

Murray received about 46 percent of the statewide vote in early returns, to Rossi’s 34 percent.

Murray was running particularly strong in heavily Democratic King County, which is expected to account for more than a third of the total votes.

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The primary results, in both the Senate and congressional races, showed few signs of the sweeping anti-incumbent sentiment seen in some other states.

Most of the state’s incumbent House members were comfortably leading their races. Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen looked like the most vulnerable member of the state delegation, coming in just ahead of his Republican challenger, Snohomish County Commissioner John Koster.

The result of the Senate race was little surprise to the Murray and Rossi camps, which had attacked each other for months while mostly ignoring the other contenders.

The high stakes were highlighted by the primary-day Seattle visit by President Obama, who raised cash for Murray and said Rossi was “counting on amnesia” if he expects voters to warm again to a Republican agenda they rejected two years ago.

Ranked as a toss-up by national political observers, the Senate race is likely to see millions in spending on television ads by the campaigns and special-interest groups. Murray has already raised nearly $12 million, while Rossi pulled in $1.3 million in his first month of campaigning.

At her campaign headquarters in Seattle, Murray arrived in jeans and tennis shoes, greeted by chants of “six more years!” “This is a critical election,” she said. “I want to keep my tennis shoes on and keep on fighting for you.”

Hosting a couple hundred campaign supporters at a barbecue at his Bellevue headquarters, Rossi said, “It’s time to treat people like adults. They know Washington, D.C., can’t keep spending money, running up debt and borrowing money.”

“After tonight,” he added, “we’re one step farther along in our conversation about what kind of country we want to be.”

Rossi was lured out of political retirement by national GOP leaders worried they didn’t have a strong-enough challenger for Murray. His entry into the race pushed Washington onto the national midterm-election map as a battleground for control of the U.S. Senate.

Complicating Rossi’s plans was the spirited campaign by former Washington Redskins tight end Didier, who ran as a conservative tea-party favorite with backing from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. An alfalfa farmer, Didier angrily attacked the federal government as a predator and promised “hell to pay” if he made it to Washington, D.C.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Didier made the unusual move of teaming up with another underdog Republican candidate, Bellingham businessman Paul Akers, to protest the GOP establishment sweeping them aside in favor of Rossi.

But the political newcomers failed to make it much of a contest. Didier was grabbing about 12 percent of the statewide vote, and Akers came in a distant fourth.

Though Didier has said his main goal is to see Murray defeated, he wasn’t ready to commit to a Rossi endorsement, saying he wanted to have a “sit-down” first. “I’ve got to see more fire in the belly. I’ve got to see more conviction,” Didier said.

“I’m gonna try to coach Dino up a bit on how to get my followers,” Didier said, adding that Rossi needs to “stand for something other than name ID, because that’s what he won this thing on.”

Murray, first elected as a “mom in tennis shoes” in 1992, has accumulated seniority and influence as a member of the Senate appropriations committee — a perch she’s used to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to local schools, ports, trains and roads.

In an ordinary year, that might be a powerful résumé for an incumbent seeking re-election. But this year, Republicans hope to turn it into a negative by playing off public anger over high unemployment and the $13 trillion federal debt.

“I respect Senator Murray,” Rossi said, “but her ideas don’t work.”

Democrats have sought to remind voters that Rossi is aligned with the Bush administration’s economic policies, which they argue led to the economic disaster still hurting the country.

Murray said in an interview Tuesday night, “I understand the frustration people have today. The people I represent and speak out for are hurting.”

But she said “we cannot afford to go back” to Bush-era policies.

During his visit to Seattle for Murray, Obama ripped Rossi for calling for the repeal of Wall Street-overhaul legislation and said Rossi wants to return to “the old rules” that caused the worst crisis since the Depression.

Staff reporters Jonathan Martin, Nicole Tsong and Carly Flandro contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or