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Andrew Gillum addresses his supporters after winning the Democrat primary for governor in Tallahassee, Fla., on Aug. 28, 2018.

Steve Cannon

A liberal Florida Democrat pulled off an upset victory while U.S. President Donald Trump’s favoured candidate cruised to an easy win Tuesday, setting up a fierce showdown for the governor’s mansion in the nation’s largest political battleground.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, an unabashed progressive, won the Democratic primary, moving him a step away from becoming the state’s first black governor. He’ll face off against Trump-backed Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis gave Trump credit for his victory, saying that with one supportive tweet, the president “kind of put me on the map.” Gillum is his party’s third black gubernatorial nominee this year, along with Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Ben Jealous in Maryland.

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The results immediately transformed the Florida race into one of the most closely watched gubernatorial campaigns in the country. Gillum’s primary victory could help Democrats boost enthusiasm among minorities who often don’t vote in large numbers in years when a presidential candidate isn’t on the ballot. Meanwhile, DeSantis will test Trump’s grip on a crucial state he won in 2016 and wants to keep in his column in 2020.

DeSantis was one of several Republicans running in contests Tuesday in Florida and Arizona – another closely watched political battleground – who hoped that cozying up to the president would be rewarded by voters. Trump has thrust himself into the forefront of the midterm campaign in hopes of motivating his supporters and offsetting Democratic enthusiasm.

In Arizona, primary contests were shadowed by the death of Sen. John McCain. Though McCain was a towering figure who was elected to the Senate by Arizonans six times, the three Republican candidates running to replace his retiring seat-mate, Sen. Jeff Flake – including establishment favourite Rep. Martha McSally – aligned themselves more with the president than the longtime senator.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey planned to name a replacement to fill McCain’s seat after his funeral.

Polls closed in Arizona at the end of a day that began with delayed openings at dozens of polling locations in the state’s largest county. Leaders in Maricopa County rejected calls to try to keep polls open later, saying it may confuse voters and delay returns. No problems were reported elsewhere in the state.

Elsewhere Tuesday, GOP voters in reliably Republican Oklahoma backed mortgage company owner Kevin Stitt in a runoff for the gubernatorial nomination. Stitt won in part by criticizing his opponent as insufficiently supportive of Trump.

Trump surprised Florida Republicans late last year with his endorsement of DeSantis, and frequently tweeted about the lawmaker, one of his staunchest supporters in Washington. His backing helped push DeSantis past Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has held elected office in Florida since 1996, quickly built up establishment support and raised millions of dollars.

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Gillum came from behind in a crowded and diverse Democratic field. Former Rep. Gwen Graham, whose father, Bob Graham, served as governor, had hoped to position herself to become the state’s first female governor.

Gillum, a favourite of progressives, spent the least of the five major Democratic candidates and had the smallest television presence. He often said he was the only candidate in the race who wasn’t a millionaire or billionaire, and won the endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

At a victory party in Tallahassee, Gillum thanked supporters who “took hold of our vision and our mission and our plan for a state that makes room for all of us, not just the well-heeled and the well-connected, but all of us.”

The winner of the Florida governor’s race will give his or her party an advantage in a key political battleground heading into the 2020 presidential campaign.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is vacating the governor’s mansion to run for Senate. He easily won his primary, setting up a showdown with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson that is expected to be one of the nation’s most competitive races.

Democrats also eyed pickup opportunities in Florida as they try to flip control of the U.S. House. One of their best chances is in South Florida, where Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring in a district that should favour Democrats.

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Donna Shalala, who served as President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary, claimed the Democratic nomination in Ros-Lehtinen’s district.

The contests in both Florida and Arizona were being closely watched for signs of how the political battlegrounds might tilt in the 2020 presidential election.

McCain’s death has highlighted anew the shift in the Republican Party since he captured the GOP nomination for president in 2008. With his consistently conservative voting record, Arizonans elected McCain to the Senate six times, including in 2016. But his more moderate stance on immigration and his deciding vote last year against Trump’s efforts to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law turned off many GOP voters.

A CNN survey in June found that 67 per cent of Democrats had a favourable opinion of McCain, while just 33 per cent of Republicans did.

Among those on the Arizona ballot was former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat McCain in 2016. When McCain’s family said last week that he was discontinuing medical treatment, Ward speculated in a later-deleted Facebook post that the announcement was intended to hurt her campaign for Flake’s seat.

Ward apologized Monday, saying she was bemoaning media coverage rather than the family’s announcement.

“I do understand how many could have misconstrued my comments as insensitive, and for this I apologize,” Ward said.

Also running for the Senate nomination was former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the controversial immigration hardliner. Trump spared Arpaio a possible jail sentence last year by pardoning his federal conviction stemming from immigration patrols.

McSally, a fighter pilot turned congresswoman in the McCain mould, was hoping Ward and Arpaio split Arizona’s anti-establishment vote.

The winner of the GOP primary is likely to face Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who had only token primary opposition. Sinema announced that she was pausing her campaign Wednesday and Thursday, when McCain’s body will lie in Arizona’s Capitol.

Sinema’s and McSally’s Senate runs also have created House openings in Arizona, a fast-growing and increasingly diverse state where Democrats are eager to gain a foothold. McSally’s district in particular is expected to be one of the most competitive House races in November’s general election.

After a day of U.S. President Donald Trump ignoring shouted questions about the death of John McCain, Trump speaks up at a gathering of evangelical leaders in the White House. Reuters
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