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Three Democratic U.S. House incumbents survive; Donna Shalala wins race for Miami seat
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — November’s election for Florida governor will pit a Donald Trump acolyte against a Bernie Sanders-backed Democrat trying to become the first African-American ever elected to lead the Sunshine State.
In the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis easily defeated State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who started the campaign as the front-runner but saw his chances fade after DeSantis got Trump’s endorsement.
But the biggest surprise of the August 28 vote came on the Democratic side, where Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came from behind to defeat two self-funding millionaires and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who comes from a prominent Florida political family.
Meanwhile, three Democratic incumbent U.S. House members who faced primary challenges survived, including 9th District U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, who easily defeated former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a controversial liberal firebrand trying to make a political comeback.
Also, Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s health secretary, won her primary in a GOP-held district likely to flip in November.
In the Republican race for governor, DeSantis, 39, from Palm Coast, beat Putnam by 20 points, carrying all of the state’s large cities.
“I believe there is no limit to what we can accomplish here as long as we have the courage to lead,” he told supporters at a victory party in Orlando. “And I pledge to you as governor to work my but off to accomplish great things for this state.”
DeSantis also offered his thanks to Trump “for viewing me as someone who can be a great leader for Florida.”
The result was a significant stumble for Putnam, 44, who spent 10 years in Congress and two terms as agriculture commission with his eye on the governor’s mansion.
Speaking to supporters in Lakeland, Putnam said he would do “any and everything we can” to help DeSantis win in November.
“He’s a veteran, he’s a solid conservative, and he will need our help,” Putnam said.
On the Democratic side, Gillum, who was vastly outspent and did not lead in a single public pre-election poll, took 34 percent to 31 percent for Graham. Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine came in at 20 percent and Palm Beach billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene at 10 percent.
Florida does not have primary runoffs, so Gillum won the nomination without a runoff.
Combined, Levine and Greene put more than $20 million of their own money into the race, to no avail.
Gillum was outspent by all of his major competitors, although he did get an infusion of cash near the end of the campaign from liberal megadonorrs George Soros and Tom Steyer. He was also endorsed by Sanders, the self-styled democratic socialist who ran an insurgent presidential campaign in 2016.
“There were just a few people who said that this moment would not be possible,” Gillum told cheering supporters in Tallahassee. “And then there were a few more who believed this day was possible.”
“This thing is not about me. It never has been. It never will be,” he said. “This race is about every single one of you.”
Gillum’s victory upsets the political equation on both sides. Democrats had been hoping for a DeSantis win, seeing him as a weaker candidate against Graham, who had a moderate record during her one term in Congress. Now, both campaigns will have to adapt to a race pitting the most conservative candidate in the race against the most liberal.
Gillum is also the first African American candidate in either party to win a gubernatorial nomination in Florida and would become the state’s first black governor if he beats DeSantis in November.
One cloud on the horizon for Gillum is an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee city government. He has insisted that he is not implicated in the probe, although photographs have surfaced of the mayor traveling with two FBI agents who were working undercover.
Gillum, like DeSantis, won all of the state’s major cities. The key to his victory was a collapse in Graham’s vote in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where she didn’t break 20 percent.
Speaking to her supporters in Orlando, Graham pledged her support to Gillum, relating a phone call she had with the primary winner.
“I said, ‘Now Andrew, go out and win this damn thing because this is too important to the state of Florida,” said Graham, the daughter of former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham.
In the U.S. Senate race, both Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and Republican Governor Rick Scott easily won their party’s nominations for the fall election, setting up what is likely to be the nation’s most expensive Senate race this year.
In U.S. House races, three Democratic incumbents also easily turned back primary challengers.
In the 5th District, a majority-minority district that stretches across North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee took 60 percent of the vote to defeat former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.
In the 9th District in metro Orlando, Soto easily dispatched Grayson, 66 percent to 44 percent. Grayson was trying to make a comeback after giving up the seat in 2016 to make an ill-fated bid for the U.S. Senate.
Tuesday’s primaries also set up fall matches for four battleground seats that Democrats are trying to take away in their quest to win control of the House.
In the 27th District in Miami-Dade County, Shalala, a Clinton cabinet secretary and former president of the University of Miami, took the first step in her quest to launch a political career at age 77, winning with 32 percent of the vote in a field of five candidates.
She will face Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a former Spanish-language TV news anchor, who won the GOP race with 41 percent of the vote.
The district, which includes Miami Beach and parts of Miami, is open due to the retirement of veteran Republican U.S. Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, who has held it for 30 years. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the district by nearly 20 points in 2016, making this one of the Democrats best pickup opportunities nationally.
However, the population of the district is more than 70 percent Latino and includes Miami’s politically potent Cuban community. Salazar is a Cuban-American born in Miami; Shalala, of Lebanese descent, was born in Ohio and moved to Miami in 2001.
In the 16th District centered on the southern side of Tampa Bay, Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota is seeking a seventh term in a district Trump carried by 11 points. He will face Democrat David Shapiro, a Sarasota lawyer who easily won his party’s nomination.
Shapiro has raised more than $1.3 million for the race to try to make it competitive, according to Federal Elections Commission campaign finance reports. However, Buchanan has raised $2.2 million.
In the 18th District along the Treasure Coast and northern Palm Beach County, the Democratic nominee will be Laura Baer, an attorney from Palm Beach Gardens who served as a senior adviser to secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. She will now take on Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast from Palm City in a swing district that switched parties in 2012 and 2016.
Curbelo been a rare critic of Trump within the House Republican Caucus as he tries to hang on in a district Hillary Clinton won by 16 points.
Republicans also picked nominees for three open GOP-held seats that they will be favored to retain in November.
In the 6th District in metro Jacksonville, which DeSantis gave up to run for governor, Republicans chose Mike Waltz, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney. In November, he will face Democrat Nancy Soderberg, a former Bill Clinton aide who served as deputy U.N. ambassador.
In Southwest Florida’s 15th District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross retired, State Rep. Ross Spano won the Republican nomination and will now face Democrat Kristen Carlson, former general counsel for the Florida Department of Citrus.