Trump ally Ron DeSantis wins Florida GOP governor’s primary

Florida residents cast votes in primaries for a US Senate seat, the governor’s post, and several US House seats.
Florida residents cast votes in primaries for a US Senate seat, the governor’s post, and several US House seats.Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg

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ORLANDO — Florida Republicans nominated state Representative Ron DeSantis for governor Tuesday, propelling one of President Trump’s most unabashed allies to the general election in the country’s largest swing state.

In Arizona, Republican primary voters were going to the polls to decide a replacement for Trump’s most outspoken critic in the Senate, Jeff Flake. But the contest evolved into a test of which candidate could embrace Trump most snugly. In the Arizona governor’s primary, Democrats were deciding between an outspoken progressive and a pragmatist.

Lifted by a June endorsement from Trump, DeSantis handily defeated Adam Putnam, the state agriculture commissioner and one-time favorite for the nomination.

He will face Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, an unvarnished liberal who won in a crowded Democratic field that included moderate US Representative Gwen Graham, the daughter of governor-turned-senator Bob Graham. Gillum is seeking to become the state’s first black governor.

DeSantis’s victory represented another emphatic demonstration of the president’s iron grip on the Republican Party. A 39-year-old lawmaker who previously was little-known outside of his Daytona Beach-area district, DeSantis steadily gained notoriety on the right, and attention in the Oval Office, by frequently appearing on Fox News to defend Trump.

The president took notice of the Navy veteran and praised his candidacy in December. Trump’s near-endorsement prompted a flurry of lobbying by Republicans urging him to refrain from offering his formal blessing. And among the party officials counseling restraint was Vice President Mike Pence, who served with Putnam in the House.

But Trump was grateful for DeSantis’s televised advocacy, believed the former JAG officer looked the part of a governor, and had little relationship with Putnam, who harshly criticized some of the president’s conduct in the 2016 race. So in June, Trump offered, as he put it on Twitter, his “full Endorsement.”

Recounting his intervention in the Florida race last week at a rally in West Virginia, Trump said of DeSantis: “He was at 3, and I gave him a nice shot, and a nice little tweet — bing bing — and he went from 3 to like 20 something.”

Putnam fought back, emphasizing his deep knowledge of Florida and chiding DeSantis for his television ubiquity. The son of a citrus farming family who was elected to the state Legislature when he was 22, he went on to serve in the House leadership in Washington.

“Florida’s not picking an apprentice; we’re picking a governor,” Putnam said.

In the Democratic primary, Graham, who was hoping to become Florida’s first female governor, was locked in a competitive race with Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor, and former Miami Beach mayor Phil Levine.

Democrats are hungry to win in Florida: They have not held the governor’s mansion in two decades and lost the past two elections to Rick Scott by a single percentage point. Scott, the term-limited governor, won his primary for US Senate. He will seek to unseat longtime Senator Bill Nelson in what is shaping up as one of the most expensive races in the nation.

Reflecting the tensions of the Trump era, Florida Democrats were split over whether to nominate a moderate such as Graham, who represented a Republican-leaning North Florida district in Congress, or a progressive such as Gillum.

The most high-profile primary Tuesday, though, was in Arizona, where just three days after the death of Senator John McCain, Republicans were demonstrating how much the party had drifted from his pragmatic style of politics to Trump’s hard-line nationalism.

Each of the three candidates vying to replace Flake, who is retiring after a single term, aligned themselves with Trump.

After asking the president to stay out of the race, Representative Martha McSally, the establishment favorite who will not say how she voted in 2016, sought Trump’s endorsement this month.

McSally, one of the first women to fly in combat for the Air Force, was the favorite against the other two Republicans in the race: former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Trump pardoned last year, and Kelli Ward, a former state senator who garnered nearly 40 percent in a 2016 primary against McCain and sought to capitalize on his death Monday by saying “political correctness is like a cancer.”