Florida’s governor race pits Trump-backed conservative against Sanders-backed Democrat


WASHINGTON (JTA) — A boost from President Donald Trump secured the Republican Florida gubernatorial nomination for a right-wing congressional backer, Ron DeSantis, while the Bernie Sanders-backed Tallahassee mayor, Andrew Gillum, won the Democratic nod.

Trump’s relentless backing for DeSantis, a fierce defender of Trump in the U.S. House of Representatives as the president faces a federal investigation into alleged improprieties by his campaign and presidency, boosted him over the candidate the establishment had backed, Adam Putnam, the state’s commissioner of agriculture.

DeSantis is close to the conservative pro-Israel community and was among those leading the congressional charge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — a pledge Trump fulfilled in May. DeSantis trounced Putnam 57-36 percent.

“Such a fantastic win for Ron DeSantis and the people of the Great State of Florida,” Trump said on Twitter.

Gwen Graham, a former House member, had been the favorite to win the Democratic nod but was frustrated by a number of challenges from other centrists, including two Jewish multimillionaires: Philip Levine, a former mayor of Miami Beach and a media mogul, and Jeff Greene, a real estate developer.

Levine and Greene dumped huge amounts of their own money into Florida’s advertising markets, attacking each other and Graham, the daughter of former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who until he retired in 2005 was close to the national Jewish and pro-Israel communities.

Greene withdrew from the race in recent weeks, but Levine stuck it out. Both seemed to have siphoned centrist votes from Graham, paving the way for a win by Gillum, a progressive who is backed by Sanders, the Jewish Independent senator from Vermont who has become the de facto leader of the left among Democrats. Gillum would be Florida’s first African American governor if he wins.

Gillum had 34 percent off the vote, Graham had 32 percent, Levine had 20 percent and Greene had 10 percent, even though he had informally quit the race.

“Florida has proved that this is no ordinary campaign,” said Our Revolution, the political action committee launched after Sanders’ unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. “We have a true progressive on the ballot, the first black major party nominee for governor in state history, and he is counting on our support. That is why Senator Bernie Sanders, local groups, and Gillum’s grassroots army got out the vote to put him over the top in this primary.”

Rick Scott, Florida’s current governor, won the GOP Senate nomination and will face incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, who was uncontested in the Democratic primary. Democrats are favored to retake the U.S. House of Representatives, and Republicans hope to keep or expand their 50-49 majority in the Senate. Scott is seen as one of the stronger contenders in the GOP bid to unseat Democrats.

A number of Jewish candidates featured prominently in House races.

Alan Grayson, a Jewish left-wing firebrand who retired his seat in Florida’s 9th District in 2016 in a failed bid for the Senate, lost his bid to win the seat back, going down 34 percent to 66 percent to the man who succeeded him, Darren Soto.

David Shapiro, a lawyer, won the Democratic nod in the 16th District, south of St. Petersburg and Tampa on Florida’s west coast. He will face Vern Buchanan, the Republican incumbent. Buchanan has the edge, but pundits say he is more vulnerable than he has been in recent elections because of Democratic voters energized by Trump’s presidency.

Also seen as having moved from safe to vulnerable is incumbent GOP congressman Brian Mast in Florida in the 18th District, which comprises a patch of coast north of Palm Beach. He now faces Lauren Baer, a top State Department adviser on human rights under President Barack Obama, who has the distinction of having secured an endorsement from the rabbi who presided at her Bat Mitzvah, in an Op-Ed appearing in the local Jewish newspaper.

David Holden, a Jewish financial adviser and political activist from Naples on the southwest coast, won the Democratic nod to face GOP incumbent Francis Rooney, but Holden’s bid is seen as more quixotic, given the 19th District’s deeply conservative pedigree.

In the 1st District in Florida’s panhandle, Jennifer Zimmerman, a physician whose husband is Jewish, won the Democratic nod to face incumbent GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, like DeSantis, a prominent House backer of trump, and like Rooney, seen as in a safe seat.

Florida’s three incumbent Jewish Democrats in the House will continue to November elections: Lois Frankel in the 21st District, Ted Deutch in the 22nd and Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the 23rd — all districts in the state’s southeast. Frankel and Wasserman Schultz were uncontested and Deutch crushed a rival.

Wasserman Schultz will face for the third time Republican Joe Kaufman, who has written for a number of right-wing pro-Israel outfits, including the Freedom Center and the Middle East Forum.

Also going to primaries elections on Tuesday was Arizona, just days after the death of its senior senator, John McCain, who was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. Doug Ducey, the Republican governor, has yet to name a successor to serve out McCain’s term.

The race to watch is for the seat of Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who has been outspoken in his opposition to Trump and who is retiring. Two congresswomen are in the running for Flake’s seat: Rep. Kyrsten Sinema won the Democratic nod and Rep. Martha McSally is the Republican nominee.

Sinema in the 2000s was an activist with close associations with far-left groups, including some that were sharply critical of Israel. She has since become a fiercely centrist Democrat, who regularly attends American Israel Public Affairs Committee conferences, who has said she would not back Sen. Chuck Schumer for party leader — and who is the rare Democrat who has praise for Trump, for his support for veterans.

Trump didn’t have a pick in the Republican race which helped McSally, an establishment Republican, fend off two hardline Trumpians who share the president’s antipathy to immigration.

Recommended from JTA