By Letitia Stein
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) – Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans loyal to Donald Trump scored victories in nominating contests for Florida and Arizona, giving momentum to the insurgent wings of America’s two main parties ahead of November elections.
“Some worry that we are beyond a point in American politics where you can come to the middle,” said Susan MacManus, a political analyst and retired political science professor at the University of South Florida. “It is all about base.”
Here are several takeaways from contests that will be pivotal in November, when Democrats hope to wrest control of Congress from Republicans and win back influential statehouses.
DEMOCRATS SWING LEFT IN GOVERNOR RACES
A few weeks ago, Andrew Gillum remained relatively unknown to Florida voters despite a historic bid to be the state’s first black governor. Most opinion polls showed him trailing in a crowded field of better-funded competitors.
But he pulled off an upset with an unapologetically liberal agenda and grassroots campaign in a battleground state, where Democrats have been shut out of the governor’s office for two decades.
Gillum‘s nomination marks a departure from previous white, centrist nominees who have lost. His campaign featured fiery calls for expansive government-run healthcare, higher wages for workers and Trump‘s impeachment.
The 39-year-old son of a bus driver highlighted the power of his historic candidacy to rouse younger and more racially diverse voters who often sit out midterm elections.
Accusations of race-baiting quickly flared when the Republican nominee, Congressman Ron DeSantis, in a national television interview called his opponent charismatic and articulate but too liberal for Florida, where voters would not want “to monkey this up.”
In Arizona, David Garcia, a Latino progressive candidate, secured the Democratic nomination for governor in a contest seen as a longer shot for the party to win.
An educator and veteran, Garcia has called for tuition-free college and reform of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. He was immediately blasted by Republicans as too radical for the electorate in the November general election, when he will face incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey.
TRUMP‘S ENDORSEMENT SWAYS REPUBLICAN BASE
Florida Republican nominee DeSantis thanked President Donald Trump for his landslide win. The president’s endorsement helped to catapult the conservative once seen as a longshot candidate for governor to a 20-percentage point win in the Republican nominating contest.
His trouncing of the early establishment favorite, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, underscored the president’s popularity with the Republican base.
DeSantis, 39, is the latest in a string of Republican candidates elevated this year by the president’s engagement in intraparty fights.
While Trump held off endorsing any of the three Republicans in a contentious U.S. Senate battle in Arizona, the candidates all spent the final stretch of the campaign touting their allegiance to him.
Establishment favorite U.S. Representative Martha McSally fended off two hard-line conservatives, former state senator Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, in a southwestern state that Trump won by about 4 percentage points.
Trump posted on Twitter a full-throttled endorsement for her candidacy on Wednesday morning and claimed sweeping wins for his “Make America Great Again” agenda. “It is morphing into KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” he wrote.
In Oklahoma, political newcomer Kevin Stitt won a runoff for the Republican nomination after closely aligning himself with Trump‘s agenda.
WOMEN DOMINATE CONGRESSIONAL CONTESTS
Up and down the ballot, female candidates in both parties continued to dominate key races in a year with record numbers of women seeking office.
Arizona will have its first female U.S. senator, whether it is McSally, 52, or Democratic opponent U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema, 42. The winner may decide which party controls the chamber where Republicans now hold a one-seat majority.
Former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick won the Democratic nomination for McSally’s congressional seat in the suburbs around Tucson. Republican businesswoman Lea Marquez Peterson also won her party’s nomination for the competitive district.
In Florida, however, the lone female candidate for governor, Gwen Graham, was defeated by Gillum, a stunning loss after she had spent months as the apparent frontrunner.
But Democrat Donna Shalala, a longtime party insider who ran the U.S. healthcare agenda under former President Bill Clinton, bested several male candidates to win the nomination for a competitive congressional seat in Miami.
She will square off against Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a Spanish-language television journalist.
Both are seeking the seat vacated by retiring Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a contest that could present the Democrats with one their best opportunities nationally to flip a Republican seat.
Salazar’s background, however, could help Republicans hold onto the seat in a district where about three-fourths of the population is Hispanic but which favored Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Simon Cameron-Moore and David Gregorio)
Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
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