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Primary Briefing: Florida, Arizona And Oklahoma

It’s the Spring Training Primary! Six months after pitchers and catchers first reported to pre-season MLB training camps in Arizona and Florida, local fans report to their polling places on Tuesday to decide some of the most crackerjack primaries of the year. In addition, several Oklahoma primaries that went into extra innings after June 26 will be decided in runoffs. It’s the last big primary night of the year; play ball!

Florida

Races to watch: 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 15th, 17th, 18th and 27th congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 7 p.m. Eastern in most of the state, 8 p.m. in the Panhandle

With Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott virtually locked in as their parties’ nominees for U.S. Senate, the biggest game in town is the primary for governor. Republican Adam Putnam, the state agriculture commissioner, has spent years doing the things you traditionally do to position yourself as an overwhelming primary favorite: steeped himself in local politics, raised tens of millions of dollars and cultivated the support of the state’s most prominent Republican officeholders and interest groups, including Florida’s powerful sugar industry. But he’s learning a hard lesson that’s been taught to plenty of Republican establishment figures lately: Traditional tactics are no match for celebrity. Putnam’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, makes frequent guest appearances on Fox News and has earned the support of national influencers like the Koch brothers and President Trump himself. Putnam comfortably led DeSantis in polls before Trump’s formal endorsement on June 22,1 but by July, the numbers had done a complete 180. DeSantis is now an undeniable favorite, although recent polls disagree over whether his lead is as wide as 22 points or as narrow as 1. It’s difficult to say who would be Republicans’ stronger candidate in the general election, although Democrats have hammered Putnam for his alleged incompetence — for 13 months, his office approved gun permits without completing applicants’ background checks — and have appeared gleeful at DeSantis’s rise.

Upheaval has also visited the Democratic field. The early favorite was Gwen Graham, the former U.S. representative with a moderate voting record and a famous father. Then self-described “radical centrist” Philip Levine dipped into his $133 million fortune to fund an early and unanswered TV ad campaign that pulled him into the lead. In four years as mayor of Miami Beach, Levine amassed a long list of progressive accomplishments — a plan to fight sea-level rise, body cameras for police, marijuana decriminalization — but plenty of baggage too: He cozied up to Republicans, enriched his friends and business interests and governed with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. But there may not be room in the race for two self-funding Trump frenemies: Billionaire Jeff Greene jumped in at the last minute and has spent more than $20 million on TV ads, eating into Levine’s support (the two Jewish South Floridians draw from the same pool of voters) and handing the polling lead back to Graham. Greene’s attacks on the two front-runners may have also opened the door for a fourth candidate, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. The loud-and-proud progressive was dogged early on by poor fundraising and an FBI investigation into his city hall, but a pair of rallies with Bernie Sanders and last-minute cash infusions from the likes of George Soros and Tom Steyer have rekindled his hopes. Tuesday is anyone’s game, but you’d have to consider Graham (the only woman in the field) a slight favorite — luckily for Democrats, since she is the only one who’d enter the general election without significant baggage.

As for Congress, it might be easier to list the districts that aren’t featuring competitive primaries on Tuesday. Here are the most interesting races, grouped thematically to make it easy (or at least less hard) to wrap your head around them. First, the endangered Democratic incumbents:

  • In the 9th District, former Rep. Alan Grayson is trying to reclaim the seat he left behind to run for U.S. Senate in 2016. Grayson’s strategy: run to current Rep. Darren Soto’s left. However, Grayson’s reputation as a fiery progressive has been doused by ethics questions and spousal-abuse allegations, and Soto is Florida’s first Puerto Rican congressman in a heavily Puerto Rican district. The exceptionally ugly contest has seen Grayson attack Soto for being ineffective, while Soto has slammed Grayson for his “shady” overseas business dealings. Soto leads Grayson 45 percent to 38 percent in one poll of the race. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric,2 the 9th District is 8 percentage points more Democratic-leaning than the nation as a whole, so even Grayson’s flaws are probably not enough to put the seat in play for Republicans this year, but he may have trouble in a less favorable environment.
  • Meanwhile, in the 5th District (a D+21 partisan lean), Jacksonville will attempt to win back the congressional influence it “lost” when Rep. Al Lawson, who lives in Tallahassee, defeated a Jacksonville-based incumbent in 2016.3 Former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown initially looked like a strong candidate to return to the seat to the hands of a Jacksonville resident, but despite a Lawson mini-gaffe when he applauded Trump during the State of the Union, Brown remains around 20 points behind the incumbent in polls.

Then, the flippable open seats:

  • Miami’s 27th District is a longtime Republican stronghold that, according to our model, is very likely to flip to Democrats this year (its partisan lean is D+10). Donna Shalala, the former president of both the University of Miami and the Clinton Foundation, leads the Democratic primary even in her opponents’ internal polls. But former state Rep. David Richardson has raised more money and is dusting off the Sanders playbook, attacking Shalala for her opposition to single-payer health care and service on corporate boards. Republicans struggled to recruit a strong candidate, but the smart money in that race is on TV anchor Maria Elvira Salazar defeating, among others, former Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro (who raised just $50 in the last reporting period) and Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, best known for allegedly being abducted by aliens at the age of 7. As a Cuban-American woman, just like retiring GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Salazar is probably the candidate swing voters would be most comfortable with in November.
  • Lakeland’s 15th District is fairly red (R+13), but it’s two Democrats who have raised the most cash: Emily’s List endorsee Kristen Carlson and Navy veteran Andrew Learned. Oddly, both formerly supported the GOP (either with votes or donations), but Learned is running the more explicitly progressive campaign, with endorsements from local affiliates of Our Revolution and Indivisible. For Republicans, state Rep. Ross Spano started off with a polling lead, but former state Rep. Neil Combee’s TV ads about working in the Trump administration (he was appointed to a job in the Department of Agriculture) may have moved the needle: Combee now leads polls by 6 percentage points.

Next, the open Republican primaries in red districts:

  • Two self-funding veterans are the front-runners in the Republican primary to replace DeSantis in Florida’s 6th District (R+18), and the fighting has been fierce. Former Army Green Beret Mike Waltz and former Navy officer John Ward have slugged each other for opposing Trump while hugging him tightly themselves. The latest St. Pete Polls survey shows Waltz leading Ward 40 percent to 21 percent, with 16 percent for former state Rep. Fred Costello, who’s raised about a quarter as much money as the top two Republicans. The winner will almost certainly face Nancy Soderberg, a former national security staffer for President Bill Clinton whom Democrats are excited about; she’s raised $1.7 million, and our forecast gives her a 2 in 9 chance against Waltz in November.
  • The 17th District (R+28) is more solidly Republican, and state Sen. Greg Steube and state Rep. Julio Gonzalez are both rock-ribbed conservatives, but the primary has become a proxy war between several GOP-linked interest groups. The business-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce is behind Gonzalez, while the NRA backs Steube, who is known for his zealous support of gun rights. Most notably, the fastidiously anti-tax Club for Growth has stuck their neck out for Steube to the tune of almost half a million dollars. Steube leads Gonzalez 39 percent to 16 percent in a Club-sponsored poll, a credible result given all the outside money supporting Steube.

Finally, the primaries for the right to enter an uphill battle with a formidable incumbent in November:

  • In the 7th District (R+0.1), businessman Scott Sturgill has outraised, outspent and out-self-funded state Rep. Mike Miller, but Miller owned a 16-point lead in a recent poll. Miller has been a sharp Trump critic in the past but has since come around to supporting the president, while Sturgill boasts endorsements from Roger Stone and the group Bikers for Trump. Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy is heavily favored over Miller in our model and would probably also wipe the floor with Sturgill.
  • Republican Rep. Brian Mast is likewise given a great chance to be re-elected to the 18th District (R+12), but two Democrats are hoping against hope: former Obama State Department official Lauren Baer is the pick of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but Navy veteran Pam Keith has raised a credible $540,000 to keep herself in the race.

Oklahoma

Races to watch: 1st and 5th congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

All eyes are on the Republican runoff for governor, which could determine if Democrats have a shot at this office in the fall. Multiple polls suggest that Drew Edmondson, who comfortably won the Democratic nomination outright in June, would start out with a lead over businessman Kevin Stitt but tie or trail former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. Cornett led Stitt 29 percent to 24 percent in Round 1, but Stitt has used his personal wealth to outraise his rival $2.8 million to $1.3 million since the primary. Polls give Stitt a 9- or 10-point lead in a race that has devolved into a war of attack ads. (Cornett’s unofficial campaign slogan? “Bull Stitt.”)

Several congressional races also went to runoffs, but we’ll focus on two of them. In the Republican runoff for the 1st District, an R+28 open seat, another wealthy businessman, Kevin Hern, has spent $1.5 million of his own money in an effort to close the gap with June’s first-place finisher, former Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris. And the 5th District (R+13) Democratic runoff should be an easy victory for former political staffer Kendra Horn over retired professor Tom Guild; Horn has a far more sophisticated campaign operation and trounced Guild in the first round 44 percent to 18 percent. Our House forecast sees Horn as a strong enough candidate to make GOP Rep. Steve Russell sweat.

Arizona

Races to watch: U.S. Senate; 1st and 2nd congressional districts; governor
Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern in certain parts of the state that observe daylight saving time, 10 p.m. Eastern everywhere else

Once upon a time, back before Sen. Jeff Flake decided not to seek re-election, the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Arizona looked like the ultimate establishment-vs.-insurgent showdown. But fast forward 10 months, and center-right U.S. Rep. Martha McSally is so confident of her primary chances that she’s already airing ads geared toward the general election. The once Trump-skeptical congresswoman has convincingly recast herself as an ally of the president, dropped her support for a version of the DREAM Act and benefited from a $4.1 million spending spree by an establishment-friendly super PAC. Her main competition is Kelli Ward, an ultraconservative former state senator who has waged a one-woman war against the mainstream Arizona Republican Party (she tried to primary both John McCain and Jeff Flake), winning admiration from icons of the far right like Steve Bannon and Patriot Movement AZ, an aggressive conservative protest group. Joe Arpaio also earned a devoted following for his harsh tactics (a court called them racial profiling) as sheriff of Maricopa County, but his Senate campaign has floundered in third place and may now exist for the sole purpose of undercutting Ward. Both are immigration hardliners with close ties to the White House, but Trump has refrained from endorsing in the primary. U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is the presumptive Democratic nominee; polls give her a small lead over McSally, a respectable advantage over Ward and a dominating margin over Arpaio. (Democrats have set up a secretive super PAC that has spent almost $1.7 million trying to sabotage McSally in the primary, strongly suggesting that they fear her the most in a general election.)

Arizona’s governor race gets a lot less ink, but the Republican Governors Association is worried enough that it’s spent $9.2 million here already — almost all on ads attacking Democrat David Garcia. Garcia does comfortably lead state Sen. Steve Farley in polls of the Democratic primary, but Farley has slightly outraised and outspent Garcia, so it’s not a done deal yet. Garcia is a strong candidate for Democrats: His 2014 campaign for state superintendent of public instruction was the closest any Arizona Democrat has gotten to winning statewide office since 2006, and his Hispanic heritage may help turn out that crucial segment of the Democratic base. His background as an educator also contrasts favorably with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who clashed with striking teachers staging high-profile protests in the Arizona Capitol earlier this year. Ducey himself faces a primary challenge from former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, whom he defeated in the Republican primary four years ago, but Bennett appears to be running a shoestring campaign this time around.

And finally, each party will choose its challenger in Arizona’s two most evenly divided congressional districts. Retired Air Force officer Wendy Rogers is verging on perennial candidate status at this point,4 but her avowed loyalty to Trump seems to be keeping her in the Republican primary race for Arizona’s Democrat-held 1st District (R+6). Her rivals are state Sen. Steve Smith, who hails from the Freedom Caucus wing of the party, and farmer/attorney Tiffany Shedd. In the Tucson-based 2nd District (R+1) — an open GOP seat thanks to McSally’s Senate run — the national Democratic Party is solidly behind Ann Kirkpatrick, who until 2017 was the U.S. representative from Arizona’s 1st District. However, her moderate voting record and weak ties to the district haven’t sat well with former state Rep. Matt Heinz, who is running as a full-throated progressive. Kirkpatrick is likely the strongest play for Democrats: She has raised nearly $2 million and won three out of four general elections in a Republican-leaning House district (her only loss came in the Republican wave of 2010), while Heinz lost his 2016 bid for this seat to McSally by 14 points. Some Democrats are worried that the bilious and expensive primary will weaken their eventual nominee in his or her likely November bout with Republican Lea Marquez Peterson, the CEO of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Footnotes

  1. Trump had given DeSantis his de facto endorsement back in December, but even political junkies aren’t paying that close attention to primaries around the holidays.

  2. The average difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. In our new and improved partisan lean formula, 2016 presidential election results are weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results are weighted 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature are weighted 25 percent.

  3. The district is situated between Jacksonville at one end and Tallahassee over 150 miles away at the other.

  4. She lost a general election for state Senate in 2010, the primary in Arizona’s 9th District in 2012, the general election in the 9th District in 2014 and the primary in the 1st District in 2016.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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