Zealotry Wins Twice in Florida

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democratic and Republican politicians both like to accuse the other party of ideological zealotry. In the Florida gubernatorial primaries Tuesday night, voters of both parties instead embraced it.

Victories by a Republican backed by President Donald Trump and a Democrat supported by Senator Bernie Sanders set up a stark battle in November that will have important implications for congressional redistricting after the 2020 election.

On the Democratic side, the triumph by Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was the most significant win this year for the Democratic left, whose candidates have mostly lost to more centrist politicians. Gillum, who defeated former Representative Gwen Graham, was endorsed by Sanders, the Vermont socialist, and Tom Steyer, the Silicon Valley billionaire who has bankrolled a national effort to impeach Trump.

Worried national Democrats said Tuesday night that they feared Gillum’s triumph would blunt their advantage against the Republican primary victor, the hard-right Representative Ron DeSantis, who won a landslide victory in the contest to succeed Republican Governor Rick Scott.

It’s also possible, though, that Gillum, who would become Florida’s first African-American governor if he defeats DeSantis, could draw energized Democratic voters to the polls.

In Arizona, Representative Martha McSally won a bitter Republican primary against two vehement Trump supporters in the race to succeed Senator Jeff Flake, who had announced his retirement after angering Republican voters by criticizing Trump. Flake and his Arizona colleague, the late Senator John McCain, were two of the party’s rare Trump critics on Capitol Hill.

McSally, once a mainstream Republican, had to pander to Trump supporters during the primary campaign, even seeming to distance herself from McCain during his fight against brain cancer. She starts as a slight underdog to Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema, who easily won her party’s primary.

In a closely watched Arizona House primary, Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. Representative, defeated an anti-establishment opponent and is favored to win a Republican-held seat in November.

For Floridians, Tuesday’s result means a clear choice between two smart, articulate 39-year-olds.

DeSantis, a decorated Navy veteran and graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, started the race as an underdog to State Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam. But after he was endorsed by Trump, he surged ahead, attesting anew to Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party.

He’s an unabashed right-winger, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who favors cutting off all funds for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian efforts to help Trump win the 2016 election. Democratic leaders thought that Graham, the daughter of a popular former governor and senator, would have had a decided advantage against him in the fall with moderate swing voters.

That’s unlikely with Gillum, who is as staunchly left as his opponent is right. He supports replacing private insurance companies with a national, government-run health-care plan, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office and impeaching Trump.

Some Democrats fretted that the outcome could cost them a House seat — they need to win 23 Republican seats to capture control — and doesn’t help the reelection campaign of Senator Bill Nelson, who faces a tough contest against Scott. The outcome also is critical to the redistricting after the 2020 census, as Florida is likely to gain two seats. If Republicans control the state legislature and the governorship they will be in a commanding position to draw district lines favorable to their candidates.

Despite Gillum’s victory, several other left-wing candidates lost Democratic congressional primaries in Florida on Tuesday. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala won in a Miami district now represented by a Republican and is favored in November.

Democrats were also cheered by the result of the Republican gubernatorial race in Oklahoma, where right-wing businessman Kevin Stitt defeated Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. Although Oklahoma is one of the most reliably Republican states, the current Republican governor, Mary Fallin, is unpopular, and the Democratic candidate, former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, has a chance to win.

Kirkpatrick’s win in the Arizona House primary makes her Tucson district one of the dozen or so Republican-held seats that are likely to be won by Democrats this November. There are several dozen more toss-up seats. The district is represented by McSally, but Hillary Clinton carried it by five percentage points in 2016.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.