Ron DeSantis, an upstart Republican riding the endorsement of President Trump, surged to win Florida’s gubernatorial primary Tuesday, setting up a starkly ideological fight with a Bernie Sanders acolyte vying to become the first black governor in state history.
The contest in the country’s preeminent battleground state — already the costliest governor’s race in the country — will pit two 39-year-old candidates, U.S. Rep. DeSantis and Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who both started the campaign as considerable long shots.
In Tuesday’s other marquee contest, the U.S. Senate race in Arizona, Rep. Martha McSally easily bested former state lawmaker Kelli Ward and ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to win the GOP nomination for the seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake.
McSally, a two-term congresswoman from Tucson who ran as the favorite of the party establishment, will face Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who ran away with the Democratic primary, in a contest that could be key to deciding which party controls the Senate.
DeSantis, an Iraqi War veteran and three-term congressman from the Jacksonville suburbs, vaulted into competition in Florida after capturing the president’s attention — and subsequent endorsement — as a frequent guest on Fox News. He crushed Adam Putnam, Florida’s agricultural commissioner and the onetime favorite to succeed GOP Gov. Rick Scott, by a commanding 57% to 37%.
On the Democratic side, Gillum narrowly bested the more moderate Gwen Graham — the daughter of a former governor and longtime U.S. senator — who was vying to become Florida’s first female chief executive.
Gillum, the first member of his family to graduate from college, became the first African American to win a major-party nomination for Florida governor, edging Graham 34% to 31%.
Gillum ran with the support of Vermont Sen. Sanders and his liberal followers, embracing a wholeheartedly progressive platform calling for Medicare expansion, a higher minimum wage and welcoming policies to the state’s large immigration population.
The victory by DeSantis, a down-the-line conservative, extended Trump’s nearly unbroken streak of anointing favored primary candidates and helping lift them to victory, underscoring his hegemony over the GOP.
The question is whether the presidential embrace will serve candidates as well in the general election.
Democrats are hoping a Trump loyalist will flop with the broader electorate in November — fewer than half the state’s voters approve of Trump’s performance, according to polls — giving the party control of the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly two decades.
More than $120 million has been spent in the contest — the bulk of it by losing candidates and their supporters.
In other Florida contests, three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won his primary without opposition and will face Gov. Scott, who easily topped the GOP field, in November. The race is expected to be one of the nation’s hardest-fought and costliest Senate contests, as Nelson is considered among the most vulnerable Democrats seeking reelection.
The Democratic Party needs a gain of two seats to take control of the Senate, provided every one of their incumbents wins reelection — no small feat, given a number are running in states that Trump won overwhelmingly.
Among a handful of competitive House primaries, Donna Shalala, who was Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration, won her Democratic primary and will face Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a former journalist and TV presenter, in an open-seat contest centered in Miami.
The district, represented by retiring GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is considered one of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in the country. The party needs to gain 23 seats to win control of the House.
In Arizona, the Republican contest was a fight for the chance to succeed GOP incumbent Sen. Flake, whose criticisms of Trump made him persona non grata with the president’s base. It is one of two Republican-held seats considered a tossup in November; the other is Nevada.
McSally vied with Ward and Arpaio for the mantle of most Trump-worthy, a primary strategy that could prove troublesome in the general election in another state where the president is not widely popular beyond his core Republican supporters.
Despite entreaties from the candidates and their allies, Trump did not endorse anyone in Arizona’s contest.
On the Democratic side, three-term Rep. Sinema faced a challenge from civil rights attorney Deedra Abboud, who ran on a Sanders-style liberal agenda.
Even before the polls closed, McSally assailed the Phoenix-area lawmaker, calling Sinema a political chameleon who shed her past left-wing leanings to assume a more centrist persona.
But McSally’s ardent embrace of Trump marked a conversion of her own, from a skeptic who had criticized Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and vulgar comments about women and skipped his nominating convention. She refused to say whether she voted for the president, which was widely taken as an indication that she did not.
The final days of the race were overshadowed by the death of Arizona’s senior senator, Republican John McCain, and a suggestion by Ward that his family intended to harm her candidacy by announcing, the day before he died, that McCain was ceasing medical treatment.
The remark, widely criticized as insensitive, was in keeping with years of scathing attacks from Ward. She unsuccessfully challenged McCain two years ago in what proved the last primary of his 30-year-plus political career.
In the race for Arizona governor, incumbent Republican Doug Ducey will face Democrat David Garcia, an education policy expert and professor at Arizona State University, who narrowly lost a 2014 bid for state superintendent of public instruction.
Ducey will appoint McCain’s successor, who — should he or she choose to run — will face voters in November 2020 for the right to finish a term ending in January 2023.
Barabak reported from San Francisco and Jarvie from Atlanta.