Primary voters set the stage for some historic 2018 contests

Updated

For partisan officials in Florida, many of whom focused on “electability,” there were two obvious choices in the state’s gubernatorial primaries. Among Republicans, state Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam was seen as the safe, responsible choice, who picked endorsements from many Florida officeholders. Among Democrats, the parallel was former Rep. Gwen Graham, who was in the same boat.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 8/28/18, 9:30 PM ET

Democrat Gillum surges to face Trump's DeSantis for FL governor

Steve Kornacki, MSNBC politics correspondent, shows how Andrew Gillum has won a surprise victory in the Florida Democratic primary for governor to face Donald Trump’s pick of Ron DeSantis in the general election in November.
Steve Kornacki, MSNBC politics correspondent, shows how Andrew Gillum has won a surprise victory in the Florida Democratic primary for governor to face Donald Trump’s pick of Ron DeSantis in the general election in November.
Primary voters, however, had different ideas.

Setting up an explosive general election battle, a Donald Trump-backed Republican and a Bernie Sanders-endorsed insurgent Democrat who prevailed in an upset will face off in the Florida governor race following primaries Tuesday night, NBC News projects.

In a surprise win, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a black progressive who never led in a major poll, edged out former Rep. Gwen Graham, the politically moderate daughter of popular former governor and senator Bob Graham, in the Democratic primary. Gillum had 34.2 percent, or 510,450 votes, to Graham’s 31.4 percent, or 468,448 votes, with 96 percent of precincts reporting.

For Republicans, Rep. Ron DeSantis easily defeated state Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, thanks to a crucial early endorsement from Trump that gave him a major boost. DeSantis captured 56.5 percent, or 908,443 votes, to Putnam’s 36.5 percent, or 587,579 votes, with 97 percent of precincts reporting.

DeSantis’ win was widely expected – Donald Trump’s “mini-me” cruised to the top of the polls after receiving the president’s endorsement – but Gillum’s victory was a big surprise. In statewide polling, the Tallahassee mayor not only didn’t lead in any independent poll, he generally wasn’t seen in second place, either. In all public surveys, Gillum’s strongest showing was 16% of the vote.

He won with 34%, focusing on grassroots support, and running on an unapologetically progressive platform, including support for Medicare for All.

The results set the stage for one of the year’s marquee races. Two 39-year-old underdogs – a Trump sycophant and Florida’s first African-American gubernatorial nominee – will go toe to toe in the nation’s largest swing state.

Other tidbits from my Primary Night notes:

* Rep. Martha McSally won Arizona’s Republican Senate primary with relative ease, to the relief of GOP officials everywhere, but the congresswoman moved sharply to the right to win the party’s nomination, which seems likely to undermine her chances in the fall. She’ll face Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), and the winner will be Arizona’s first woman senator.

* In McSally’s very competitive House district, former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick won a Democratic primary as part of a comeback bid, following her failed U.S. Senate campaign two years ago.

* Candidates backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) haven’t fared especially well this year, but last night was a big exception: the Vermont independent backed Gillum’s candidacy in Florida.

* Former University of Miami President Donna Shalala won her first electoral contest, narrowly winning the Democratic primary in Florida’s 27th. This is very high on the list of U.S. House seats Democrats hope to flip from “red” to “blue” in November.

* Former Rep. Alan Grayson’s comeback bid in the Sunshine State came up far short. He challenged freshman Rep. Darren Soto in a Democratic primary in Florida’s 9th, but Soto prevailed by about 33 points.

* And in Oklahoma’s primary runoffs businessman Kevin Stitt beat former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett in the state’s Republican primary. He’ll take on former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson in a race many Democrats believe may be winnable, thanks in part to current Gov. Mary Fallin’s (R) poor approval ratings.