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Florida's play to the base — and six other takeaways from last night's primaries

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WASHINGTON — In the last major primary day of the 2018 cycle, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, pulled off an upset in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, beating front-runners Gwen Graham and Phil Levine. And it means the general election in this perpetual battleground state will be a showdown between the two parties’ bases — Gillum versus pro-Trump Rep. Ron DeSantis, who easily bested one-time GOP front-runner Adam Putnam.

Here are our six takeaways from last night’s primaries in Florida and Arizona, as well as the runoff in Oklahoma:

1. Florida Democrats and Republicans picked GOV nominees who play to the base rather than the middle

Image: Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis
Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis waves to supporters with his wife, Casey, at an election party after winning the Republican primary in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

Much like the gubernatorial race in Georgia between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, Florida now has nominees for governor that the other party believes is seriously flawed. Democrats think DeSantis is too closely tied to Trump, while Republicans are pretty sure that Gillum’s embrace of Bernie Sanders won’t play well in Florida. (Oh, and there’s an FBI investigation hanging over Gillum’s campaign.)

Then again, at this time in 2010, few were convinced that Rick Scott could win a statewide, and look what happened. One thing’s for sure: Both DeSantis (Trump voters) and Gillum (African-Americans, progressives, young voters) will bring out their bases. The question is who wins the middle. Bill Nelson’s folks were assuming/counting on a Gwen Graham victory.

2. McSally easily beat Ward and Arpaio in Arizona

But Arizona Republicans didn’t play 100 percent to the Trump base; instead, they nominated Martha McSally — who has a John McCain bio but who still embraced Trump’s policies — to face Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, in what will be the most high-profile female-versus-female Senate race of 2018. McSally (getting more than 50 percent of the vote) easily beat the more pro-Trump candidates Kelli Ward (28 percent) and Joe Arpaio (about 20 percent).

Much like in Florida, the question we have is how effective McSally will be in winning over the middle of Arizona’s electorate after spending much of the last year fending off the more conservative Ward and Arpaio. And folks, this is going to be an ugly general election: Last night, McSally said Sinema “brags about having 100 shoes” while she has “over 100 combat missions,” per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard.

3. Turnout was essentially even in Florida

When looking at the primary turnout tea leaves (remember, primary turnout doesn’t equal general-election turnout), the numbers in Florida’s contested gubernatorial races was essentially even (1.6 million for Republicans, 1.5 million for Dems.) And Democrats are pointing out their primary turnout bested past cycles. Meanwhile, here was the turnout in some of the most competitive GOP-held congressional districts in Arizona and Florida:

FL-26 (Curbelo)

GOP: 35,135

Dem: 33,092

FL-27 (open)

Dem: 44,360

GOP: 39,054

AZ-2 (open)

Dem: 67,759

GOP: 60,003

4. Two past DC politicos beat newcomers

Speaking of FL-27 and AZ-2… Despite the loss by former Dem Congresswoman Gwen Graham last night in Florida, we saw two other past D.C. politicos have success. Former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala won the Dem nomination in FL-27, and she’ll face Maria Salazar in November. (The Republican who claimed she was visited by space aliens got 4 percent.) And in AZ-2, former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick — whom John McCain beat in the 2016 Senate race — won the Dem race in AZ-2, and she’ll face Lea Marquez-Peterson. Shalala, Kirkpatrick, Salazar and Marquez-Peterson add to the list of women who will be running in competitive House races this fall.

5. In AZ-GOV, it will be Ducey vs. Garcia

Also in Arizona, David Garcia won the Dem gubernatorial nomination to face incumbent GOP Gov. Doug Ducey, whom our NBC/Marist poll from back in June showed to be potentially vulnerable.

6. Oklahoma — yes, Oklahoma — is going to have a competitive gubernatorial race

Finally, businessman Kevin Stitt beat Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett in last night’s gubernatorial runoff in Oklahoma, 55 percent to 45 percent. And Stitt will face former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson in the general election, which looks like it will be a competitive contest in the fall.

With Gillum’s victory, the stakes for progressives couldn’t be any higher

It will be a major blow for progressives if Gillum can’t win the general election against DeSantis — in the huge swing state of Florida. And the conclusion will be that base politics/Bernie Sanderism doesn’t play in Florida. But if Gillum wins, that will be quite the statement for progressives, who’ve had (at best) an uneven record this primary season. And it would be a big statement for Tom Steyer, who got involved with Gillum much earlier than Sanders did.

Also, think about it: The three races where Sanders/progressives have had the most success of 2018 — with Gillum in FL-GOV, Ben Jealous in MD-GOV and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in NY — are with progressive men and women of color who happen to be running for office in places (Florida, DC area, New York) close to where Donald Trump has homes.

One other point about Gillum: Fellow Democrats didn’t lay a glove on him (particularly the FBI investigation stuff), while they ganged up on Gwen Graham. It’s a not-too-unusual path to primary success — the person who doesn’t get touched in a multi-candidate field surges at the end. Yet when DeSantis and the GOP go after Gillum, it will be the first real punch he takes.

Trump warns Christian leaders of violence if GOP loses

“In a closed-door meeting with evangelical leaders Monday night, President Donald Trump repeated his debunked claim that he had gotten ‘rid of’ a law forbidding churches and charitable organizations from endorsing political candidates, according to recorded excerpts reviewed by NBC News. In fact, the law remains on the books, after efforts to kill it in Congress last year failed,” NBC’s Aliza Nadi and Ken Dilanian write.

“But Trump cited this alleged accomplishment as one in a series of gains he has made for his conservative Christian supporters, as he warned, ‘You're one election away from losing everything that you've got,’ and said their opponents were ‘violent people’ who would overturn these gains ‘violently.’”

The party standing up for the Democrats’ southern wing of the 1960 is … the GOP

That’s the only conclusion you can make from this: “An effort to rename Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell’s namesake building on Capitol Hill in honor of John McCain hit a speed bump on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to endorse the proposal being pushed by his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer of New York. He instead announced the creation of a bipartisan task force to brainstorm ways to ensure ‘a suitable, lasting tribute’ to the late Arizona Republican, who lost his battle with brain cancer last weekend,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes.

More: “Some Republicans said they were wary of politicizing McCain’s death given recent fights over Confederate symbols across the U.S. And Russell’s defenders in Georgia said the legendary senator should still be revered despite his views on segregation. ‘This is a guy that was a giant of the Senate,’ said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who uses Russell’s old mahogany desk in the Senate chamber. ‘So this renaming thing because of one issue, you know, is somewhat troubling.’”

Democrats, who are running on congressional accountability, don’t show up at closed-door grilling of Bruce Ohr

NBC’s Mike Memoli reports that no Democratic House members attended yesterday’s lengthy closed-door grilling of Bruce Ohr by House Republicans (although staff members were in the room.) We understand that it’s August, but it’s pretty astonishing that NO Democrats showed up to keep an eye on the majority here.

If you’re the party that believes in congressional accountability — and you’re running on the issue for the 2018 midterms — don’t you think you need to at least show up?