Trump Has a (Pretty) Good Primary Night

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Tuesday’s primaries in Florida and Arizona, along with runoffs in Oklahoma, were among the most interesting of the cycle. Some highlights:

Trump  has a good night. The president made up for his failed endorsement in Wyoming’s governor race last week by scoring a nice win in the Florida gubernatorial contest. The candidate he endorsed, Ron DeSantis, clobbered Adam Putnam, the early front-runner. Don’t listen to Trump’s extravagant claims that his intervention transformed DeSantis from hopeless to a sure winner. But even a very modest effect from his endorsement, which is plausible, may have helped ensure the win or pad the margin of victory. In any case, DeSantis may be the weaker general election candidate.

In a senatorial primary race in Arizona, Trump stayed quiet rather than endorse either of the Trumpy candidates, Joe Arpaio or Kelli Ward. That helped to keep their vote split, and allowed the much stronger November choice, Representative Martha McSally, to win easily. The rejection of Arpaio and Ward by Republican primary voters, who have been willing to support a lot of candidates who promised outrage and little else, is noteworthy. 

Remember, Trump’s influence is all about what Republican politicians believe — and it only matters if he can avoid undermining the party in general elections. Overall, he helped himself on Tuesday.

Florida Democrats make an interesting choice. The free-for-all gubernatorial primary among several Florida Democrats ended with the black liberal Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, edging out early favorite Gwen Graham. Democrats will be running black candidates for governor in both Florida and Georgia. 

While Gillum had some pretty serious outside support (from Bernie Sanders, George Soros and Tom Steyer), it also seems likely that the more prominent and well-funded candidates gave him a boost by attacking each other and leaving him alone. That’s not to say that Florida Democrats don’t like his platform, which is heavy on criminal justice reform, but only that weird things can happen in multi-candidate primaries. Including, as may be the case in Florida, the failure to nominate the strongest general-election candidate.

Still, most Democrats probably feel it’s long past time the party started showing solid support for black candidates in statewide contests. Until very recently, not only were there hardly any black governors or senators, but Democrats very rarely nominated black candidates in winnable contests. That started to change before this year, but having black nominees in Georgia and Florida feels like a big deal. It will be a much bigger deal if one or both of them win.

Democrats are liberal  …  but not dysfunctional. While the Democrats nominated this year have ranged from mainstream liberals to strong progressives, there still isn’t really any sign of the kinds of problems that have beset the Newt Gingrich, Tea Party, Trump Republicans: an unwillingness to compromise, contempt for institutions, and a rejection of normal standards of conduct and qualifications for office. 

The biggest test of that proposition this year was the comeback attempt of the demagogic former Representative Alan Grayson in his old district. He took on the incumbent Democrat Darren Soto, who thrashed him two-to-one. Democratic voters and party actors just don’t seem interested in reproducing what the Republican Party has become. That’s good news.

Oklahoma Republicans have their own story. Remember the teacher revolt in the state? It was settled by increasing teacher salaries, and raising taxes to pay for it. That was a tough decision in a very Republican state. But the political victims seem to be party candidates who didn’t get on board. Six tax-hike opponents lost runoffs on Tuesday, and as the AP reports: “Of the 19 House Republicans who voted against the tax hike, eight have now been defeated. Seven others decided not to run. Only four have advanced to the general election.” This isn’t the first time that Republican tax-cut ideology has run up against what people actually want state governments to do. It’s not clear whether this trend has any long-term effect, in Oklahoma or nationally, but it will certainly be worth watching.

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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