5 things we learned from Tuesday's primaries and what they mean for November

Andrew Gillum with his wife, R. Jai Gillum at his side addresses his supporters after winning the Democrat primary for governor on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

Nominees for midterm election races were decided in three states Tuesday, and the results set up ideological showdowns between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces that could determine control of the Senate and reveal how broad the appeal of progressive policies is.

On the Republican side, Rep. Ron DeSantis defeated Adam Putnam in the Florida gubernatorial primary, Rep. Martha McSally won the nomination for Jeff Flake’s Senate seat, and political novice Kevin Stitt secured the nomination for governor of Oklahoma.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won the Democratic nomination to face off with DeSantis, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema easily won the Democratic primary for the Arizona Senate seat, and Democratic nominee Drew Edmondson leads Stitt slightly in polling for the Oklahoma governor’s race.

The night’s results do not clearly fit any one political narrative, with establishment candidates holding on in some races and insurgents pulling off big wins in others. If nothing else, the general election matchups will make for an interesting and intense Nov. 6.

“If you’re a political watcher, you’re in for a treat in Florida and Arizona,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Florida is the main event, but Arizona ain’t too shabby.”

1. No surprises. Well, one surprise

Most of the night’s big races played out pretty much as polling suggested. DeSantis and McSally held commanding leads in recent polls. The Oklahoma runoff was neck-and-neck in the limited polling available, so outsider Stitt winning was not a shocking upset.

The big exception was the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary, where Gillum scored an unexpected victory over former Rep. Gwen Graham and several other candidates.

“Gillum had not really led much in the polls at all…,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “While it is a surprising result because of that, you have to remember it was a crowded field and there was no out-and-out frontrunner.”

Gillum spent far less on advertising than Graham, daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham, but he got a huge assist from advocacy groups backed by billionaire Tom Steyer and he had the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Progressive activists were electrified by his win.

"Andrew Gillum, the only candidate who wasn't a millionaire or the scion of a powerful political family, and an army of grassroots organizers built a movement that inspired tens of thousands of new and demoralized voters and spoke directly to the challenges they face with bold solutions like robust criminal justice reform, Medicare for All, and a historic $1 billion commitment to education,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America.

Gillum also supports abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and legalizing marijuana. On CNN Wednesday, he called for President Trump to be impeached for obstructing justice.

“Andrew Gillum won tonight because he ran a people-powered campaign, and spoke directly to voters of color and young people who the establishment often takes for granted…,” said Maria Urbina, Indivisible Project national political director, in a statement. “This victory confirms what we’re seeing across the South, from Texas to Georgia to Alabama and Florida: unapologetic progressive campaigns that speak to marginalized voters early and often are generating enthusiasm and will be crucial to winning in November.”

Elsewhere in Florida, establishment-friendly Democrats eked out wins in House races, and three-term Sen. Bill Nelson went unopposed. Nelson will now face current Gov. Rick Scott, winner of Tuesday’s GOP primary, in November in a battle over a Senate seat Democrats cannot afford to lose.

2. ‘It’s a complicated picture’

Political analysts and headline writers have rushed to brand Gillum as a Sanders-backed semi-socialist triumphing over the Democratic establishment. Skelley cautioned against that interpretation.

“Everyone is determined to use 2016 to frame everything,” he said, adding that the Florida Democratic primary was “a complicated picture.”

With nearly a dozen candidates on the ballot, Gillum managed to win the nomination with just over one-third of the vote. If Florida still had a runoff system, the results would have triggered one.

“It’s intriguing about the Democrat pulling off the upset victory in the primary…I’m not saying it’s a harbinger of things to come, but it is something to raise eyebrows,” said Jason Mollica, a professor in the School of Communication at American University and a former journalist.

Gillum is young, but he has already had a long career in local politics and he was a Hillary Clinton delegate in 2016. Hacked emails released by WikiLeaks revealed he even made it onto the Clinton campaign’s list of potential running mates.

“I actually believe that Florida and its rich diversity are going to be looking for a governor who is going to bring us together not divide us, not misogynists, not racists, not bigots,” Gillum told CNN Wednesday. “They're going to be looking for a governor who is going to appeal to our higher aspirations as a state.”

Whether that means electing an unabashedly liberal candidate whose opponent has already accused of trying to turn Florida into a Venezuelan socialist wonderland remains to be seen.

“We’ve never seen a situation where you get a true far left candidate in a state this swingy and this size,” O’Connell said.

3. Going to extremes

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding Gillum’s surprise win, there are warning signs on the horizon.

The left-leaning policies that won over Democratic primary voters may alienate Gillum from some swing voters and an ongoing FBI investigation of Tallahassee’s city government threatens to cast a dark cloud over his campaign. There is no indication Gillum is a target of the probe, but nominating candidates entangled in FBI investigations has not worked out well for Democrats in the past.

“I’m not sure which side made a riskier bet,” Skelley said.

O’Connell suggested Gillum’s calls to abolish ICE and ban assault weapons could pose a problem for the more low-key centrist Nelson if Republicans play it right.

“The happiest person about Gillum in Florida should be Rick Scott,” he said. “If I’m Rick Scott, I want to tie Nelson to Gillum as the new Democratic Party as quick as I can… It really leaves open the moderate vote opportunity if you can muddy the waters a little bit.”

This is not to suggest the GOP has nothing to worry about in Florida. DeSantis has already stumbled into controversy by urging Florida voters Wednesday morning not to “monkey it up” by voting for his African-American opponent, and his ties to Trump are less of an asset in the general election, with the president’s approval rating in the state at 43 percent in the latest Florida Atlantic University poll.

“What you saw in Florida was a rejection of the establishment, going more with grassroots outsider-type candidates,” O’Connell said. “But I wonder how long it’s going to be before this dissolves into socialism and Bernie Sanders versus the Trump puppet.”

In Arizona, McSally’s win averted a potential disaster for Republicans and complicated Democrats’ path to retaking control of the Senate. However, defeating Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio required her to veer toward her party’s extreme flank, disowning her past moderate views on immigration.

“Arizona is certainly one of the two best targets for Democrats to pick up, along with Nevada,” Skelley said, though he observed McSally’s poll numbers will improve as the GOP rallies around her.

McSally has already begun targeting Sinema as an unpatriotic protester, contrasting her own military record with “a proud Prada socialist” who was “protesting our troops in a pink tutu” while she fought overseas.

“At the end of the day, their goal is the same, which is to brand their opponent as outside the mainstream and as fringe candidates,” O’Connell said.

4. Don’t mess with the prez

For Trump, who takes great pride in selecting winners in GOP primaries, Florida added another victory to his near-perfect record. He resisted the temptation to endorse a candidate in Arizona ahead of the primary. He recently offered kind words for McSally, but he lauded Arpaio last summer as a champion of law and order when he pardoned him for a federal misdemeanor.

The triumph of DeSantis over career politician Putnam was one of the starkest examples of the power of Trump’s endorsement among the GOP base. The president initially backed DeSantis last December, but after he reiterated his support in late June, polling in the race flipped and Putnam never recovered.

According to Politico, DeSantis made 121 appearances on Fox News and Fox Business since December, appealing directly to the president’s Fox-watching base and the president himself.

DeSantis was mocked for his unabashedly pro-Trump campaign ad where his child builds a border wall out of blocks, while he slammed Putnam for having criticized Trump in October 2016 when audio emerged of him bragging about sexual assault to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush in 2005.

McSally tried to paper over her own past criticism of the president over the “Access Hollywood” tape, and she instead cast Ward as the Trump critic in the Arizona race.

Democrats in Arizona and Florida face a different calculation in trying to energize their base without scaring off scaring off independent voters.

“They need to make sure they’re focusing their message and it’s not just us against Trump,” Mollica said.

Democrats can likely also count on Trump’s frequent presence on the campaign trail and early morning tweetstorms to keep their supporters riled up and drive voter enthusiasm.

“It will be very, very tough for Republicans to count on victory if the president continues to put his virtual foot in his mouth,” Mollica said.

5. Is Oklahoma in play?

“If you’re focused on potentially unexpected competitive races, maybe it’s the Oklahoma primary runoff,” Skelley said.

Several factors may put the Oklahoma governor’s race on the list of potential pickups. Sabato’s Crystal Ball has already moved it from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.”

The state’s current Republican governor, Mary Fallin, is one of the least popular in the country, and Democrats have outperformed Clinton’s 2016 numbers by huge margins in special elections. Former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson is a known commodity who has won statewide races before, and Democrats believe businessman Stitt is vulnerable to attacks over his mortgage company’s actions during the financial crisis.

“It goes down to how do Oklahomans feel they are right now in their state,” Mollica said. “Do they feel they need to make really big changes?”

O’Connell is not convinced that they do.

“You’ve got to mess up pretty bad” to lose to a Democrat in Oklahoma, he said.

Democrats are mounting serious challenges for governor seats held by Republicans elsewhere as well. In addition to Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Laura Kelly in Kansas will be facing off against Trump-approved GOP nominees to replace term-limited Republicans.

As with all elections, these races will ultimately come down to turnout. Democrats have had an edge in that area in many special elections and primaries since Trump took office, but O’Connell noted more Republicans voted in Florida Tuesday than Democrats. That may be a sign that, at least in one state, GOP voters understand the consequences if Democrats retake control of Congress.

“We’ve been seeing it on the Democratic side because 2018 is personal for the Dems,” O’Connell said. “They want to get Trump. That’s what’s uniting them.”

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