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What to watch on the last big primary day

Rep. Martha McSally, an Air Force fighter pilot-turned-politician, is entering Tuesday’s primary as the prohibitive front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination in Arizona. | Matt York/AP Photo

The last big primary day of the 2018 midterm elections was worth the wait. It features a fierce Republican primary for a must-win Senate seat in Arizona, a half-dozen races with major implications for the battle for the House and competitive primaries in three key governors races.

Republicans are choosing a replacement for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, picking between Rep. Martha McSally, the establishment choice, and two other lightning-rod candidates best known for their inflammatory rhetoric. The results — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has publicly acknowledged that the party’s only real chance to keep the seat is to nominate McSally — will put the final definition on the 2018 Senate map.

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In the nation’s biggest swing state, both parties will pick nominees for the most competitive, big-state governorship up this year: the race to succeed Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Tuesday also signals the official kickoff of Scott’s high-profile challenge of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in what will be the most expensive Senate race of the cycle — though Nelson is unopposed for his nomination on Tuesday, and Scott is expected to breeze to victory against nominal opposition.

There are also a handful of other high-stakes races on the ballot Tuesday — congressional primaries in both Arizona and Florida that are crucial to Democratic efforts to win control of the House this fall, and a runoff in Oklahoma for the GOP gubernatorial nomination between the long-time former mayor of Oklahoma City and a first-time candidate challenging him from the right.

Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern Time in most of Florida, though a sliver of the Panhandle is in the Central Time Zone, and polls stay open there an hour later. Polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern in Oklahoma and 10 p.m. in Arizona.

Here are eight things to watch as the results come in:

Ron DeSantis’ Trump bump

When Adam Putnam abandoned his safe House seat in 2009 to run for state agriculture commissioner, it was obvious his ambitions were set on a higher office in Tallahassee. A POLITICO story about Putnam’s announcement called the ag commissioner job “a stepping stone to the governor’s office.”

But that was before President Donald Trump took over the GOP; when being a Republican in Washington was a liability; when it was better to be an elected official in Tallahassee than to campaign from a D.C. television studio.

Rep. Ron DeSantis arrived in a different era. He was a candidate for Senate last cycle — before Sen. Marco Rubio reneged on his promise and decided he would, in fact, run for a second term after falling short in the presidential race. DeSantis scurried back to his House district before the filing deadline and was able to bide his time for another shot.

Ron DeSantis

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks with the news media during a campaign event at Versailles restaurant on Monday in Miami. | Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

DeSantis entered the race well behind Putnam in the polls, but he cultivated a relationship with the new president, getting on Trump’s radar mostly through frequent appearances on Fox News Channel, which Trump reportedly watches with near-religious dedication.

Trump ultimately endorsed DeSantis — first, with a tweet late last year, then with an in-person rally and some more tweets — and DeSantis shot to the top of the polls. The latest pre-election surveys show a modest comeback for Putnam, but DeSantis still has a wide lead.

Trump has taken a far more active role in Republican primaries than his predecessors, who were far less willing to wade into intraparty battles. The president has a winning record in those races — though, last week in Wyoming, Trump endorsed GOP megadonor Foster Friess on the eve of a gubernatorial primary that Friess would go on to lose.

A DeSantis victory would be a boon to Trump, who recorded a last-minute, election-eve robocall going out to GOP voters. But Democrats are eager to run against the congressman, viewing him as a weaker general-election candidate than Putnam because of his ties to Washington and close embrace of the president.

The long Florida Democratic drought

It’s been two dozen years since Democrats won a gubernatorial election in Florida, and this year’s primary is wide open.

Former Rep. Gwen Graham — the daughter of Bob Graham, the former governor and senator — has been the slight favorite for most of the race. But chasing her are three men with significant resources: former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, billionaire investor Jeff Greene and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

Through last Thursday, Graham had spent $ 5.7 million on her campaign, far less than self-funders Levine ($ 28.5 million) and Greene ($ 34.6 million). Gillum has spent less, $ 2.5 million, but he’s been propped up by outside sources, including billionaire Tom Steyer.

All four candidates have jogged leftward in the race for the nomination — a dynamic on display Sunday, after a shooting at a video-game demonstration in Jacksonville left two people, plus the alleged shooter, dead. The candidates all called for stricter gun laws in the state and criticized what they called GOP inaction on the issue.

If Democrats are going to break a streak that goes back to 1994 — when then-Gov. Lawton Chiles narrowly beat back a challenge from Jeb Bush — most observers see Graham as the strongest of the four candidates for the general election.

Blue wave or red tide?

Despite Democrats’ national momentum and the highly publicized political activism of some of the Parkland high school shooting survivors, the party didn’t make gains in Florida voter registration in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary.

And when Republicans were outpacing Democrats in returning the first absentee ballots over the past few weeks, it looked like a second data point that suggested a blue wave may not materialize in Florida.

But, over the past few weeks, Democrats have closed the gap. As of Monday afternoon, 46 percent of the primary ballots either returned or cast via in-person early voting were from Republicans, while 44 percent were from Democrats. That’s a closer margin than in the 2016 congressional primaries, when Republicans accounted for 48 percent of the early ballots, compared to only 40 percent for Democrats.

Between the Nelson-Scott battle royal, the governor’s race and a handful of South Florida congressional races central to the battle for control of the House, Florida is living up to its political reputation in 2018 — and both parties will be measuring the political winds on Tuesday.

Incumbents under siege

Three central Florida Democrats are staring down primary challenges on Tuesday, as their opponents try to outflank them from the left.

In the Orlando suburbs, former Rep. Alan Grayson is seeking a political comeback in his old House district, after losing a 2016 Senate primary bid. Grayson, who’s running against Rep. Darren Soto, aired TV ads that said in block letters: “Impeach Trump. Grayson will. Soto won’t.”

Bill Nelson is pictured.

Grayson entered the race with significant baggage, after he was questioned about connections to an offshore hedge fund and a contentious divorce with his ex-wife during his Senate primary run. Soto, meanwhile, has hammered Grayson for past criticism of former President Barack Obama.

The fight between Rep. Al Lawson, who hails from Tallahassee, and former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown is as much about geography as political differences. Brown, who represented the more heavily populated area of the district, ran to the left of Lawson on his gun record. But a poll from the University of North Florida found that Lawson led Brown by 19 points with just days left in the race.

Due north of Orlando, Democrat Chardo Richardson got a boost with an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his primary bid against Rep. Stephanie Murphy. But Richardson raised only $ 40,000 over the entire cycle, while Murphy is sitting on $ 1.6 million in cash. The first-term congresswoman, who unseated then-GOP Rep. John Mica two years ago, is expected to win the primary.

Will McSally take flight?

McSally is entering Tuesday’s primary as the prohibitive front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination in Arizona, but it didn’t come without effort.

An Air Force fighter pilot-turned-politician, McSally aired television ads calling former state Sen. Kelli Ward — who won 40 percent of the vote in an unsuccessful primary challenge against Sen. John McCain from the right in 2016 — a “former Democrat” and said Ward was “attacking President Trump’s plans to crack down on illegal immigration.” McSally also had a super PAC attacking Ward on national security on her behalf.

(Ward spent the final days of the 2018 campaign complaining that public announcements about McCain’s declining health were aimed at hurting her candidacy, then decrying those who objected to her use of the word “cancer” to describe “political correctness” in a tweet after McCain’s death.)

Rep. Martha McSally

Arizona hasn’t elected a Democratic senator — Rep. Kyrsten Sinema faces only token opposition in Tuesday’s Democratic primary — since Dennis DeConcini won reelection in 1988, but hugging Trump in the primary doesn’t come without risk. Trump carried the state by only 4 percentage points in 2016 — far less than previous Republican presidential candidates.

But before we get to November, keep an eye on McSally’s final margin over Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Can she clinch a majority of the vote, or will Ward and Arpaio still draw relatively large shares of support from voters?

The numbers will provide clues about where the post-McCain Arizona GOP is headed — and one can bet Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who will name McCain’s replacement in the coming days, will be paying attention.

First things first

Ducey has a primary challenger of his own on Tuesday — former Secretary of State Ken Bennett — but the incumbent is heavily favored to win renomination.

The Democratic race — where David Garcia, a former associate superintendent of public instruction, is the front-runner — is more competitive.

Ducey and Republicans have already started attacking Garcia as soft on immigration, anticipating a stiff general-election challenge. But Democrats point to Ducey’s weak poll numbers as reason for optimism.

Can Kirkpatrick catch up to Heinz?

Two out of three women running in open House Democratic primaries in 2018 have won, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. But it’s not clear whether the year of the woman is coming to Arizona’s 2nd District, where former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is seeking to return to Congress.

Kirkpatrick, who unsuccessfully challenged McCain in 2016, is locked in a nasty, personal primary battle against Matt Heinz, the 2016 congressional nominee and former state legislator. Heinz has run to the left of Kirkpatrick, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-endorsed candidate who took moderate votes in Congress when she represented a different, more rural, House seat.

TV ads from both Kirkpatrick and Heinz attack their opponent’s voting record. But Heinz has also cast Kirkpatrick as a carpetbagger, as she’s now running in a district that borders her old seat. Heinz took the former congresswoman to court over her residency, but a judge tossed the case.

The pair dumped more than $ 2.4 million in the race, leaving whomever emerges from the primary with a bruised profile and a drained bank account. Republican Lea Marquez Peterson, meanwhile, is expected to cruise to the general election.

Kirkpatrick shrugged off the attacks in an interview with POLITICO last week, saying that she’s weathered “$ 40 million in attack ads already, and she’s “excited” to see that “women are winning. … We are seeing that here locally.”

Boomer Sooner

While Arizona and Florida will dominate the night, GOP voters in Oklahoma are headed to the polls to finish picking a gubernatorial nominee. No candidate won a majority of the vote in the June 26 primary, and the top two finishers — former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett (29 percent) and businessman Kevin Stitt (24 percent) — have been battling in an at-times ugly campaign for the past two months.

In many ways, it’s a classic insider-vs.-outsider GOP primary race. Stitt has attacked Cornett — a pro-business mayor of the state’s largest city for 14 years — as a career politician and insufficiently right-leaning. Cornett, on the other hand, has pointed to his accomplishments and sought to chip away at Stitt’s conservative credentials.

Stitt has objected to a series of Cornett ads — produced by the creative GOP ad-maker Fred Davis — in which Cornett beat back Stitt’s attacks with some wordplay, calling them “bull-Stitt.”

“The vulgarity to use someone’s name is the lowest of the low,” Stitt said in a debate last week. “That’s going to backfire. People don’t like those dirty name-calling tricks, and it shouldn’t have happened.”

The candidate who wins the nomination Tuesday won’t be on a glide path to the governorship. Despite the state’s Republican orientation, Democrats have a real candidate — former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson — and polls show outgoing GOP Gov. Mary Fallin has high disapproval ratings in the state.

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