By John Whitesides
(Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis easily won the Republican primary for governor in Florida on Tuesday after a campaign in which he highlighted his enthusiastic loyalty to President Donald Trump.
DeSantis, who was endorsed by Trump, beat state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam for the Republican nomination for governor, the Associated Press projected. He led by nearly 19 percentage points with more than half the votes counted.
Trump, who captured the battleground state of Florida by just more than 1 percentage point in the 2016 White House race, had reiterated his support for DeSantis in a tweet on Tuesday. DeSantis made his allegiance to Trump the central theme of his race, airing a campaign ad in which he urged his toddler daughter to "build that wall" with toy blocks.
The race in Florida will be one of the top gubernatorial contests in the country in the Nov. 6 elections, when 36 governor's offices will be up for grabs. DeSantis will face the winner in a crowded Democratic gubernatorial primary field led by moderate former U.S. Representative Gwen Graham, the daughter of Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator.
Graham's top challengers include former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a progressive favorite endorsed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
With more than half the votes counted, Graham had a 2-percentage-point lead over Gillum.
Florida also will host one of the country's top U.S. Senate races between term-limited Republican Governor Rick Scott, who won the Senate nomination against token opposition, and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. Nelson ran unopposed for the nomination.
Voters in Arizona also headed to the polls on Tuesday to pick candidates for the November elections, when Democrats will try to pick up 23 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and two seats in the Senate to gain majorities and slam the brakes on Trump's legislative agenda.
In Arizona, which Trump won by 4 percentage points in 2016, Republican establishment favorite U.S. Representative Martha McSally has led consistently in opinion polls over former state Senator Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a three-way battle to prove which candidate is most loyal to Trump.
The contest could be critical to the balance of power in the Senate in November. The Arizona seat of retiring Republican Jeff Flake, a Trump critic, is considered one of the two top takeover targets for Democrats, along with Nevada.
McSally is seen as a stronger general election candidate than either Ward or Arpaio, both hard-line conservatives. McSally has already launched advertising aimed at her likely Democratic opponent in November, U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema.
The primaries in Arizona and Florida on Tuesday are the last big day of state primaries before November's elections. After Tuesday's primaries, only five states remain to pick candidates before full attention turns to the November election, when all 435 House seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats will be at stake.
(Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
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Updated Date: Aug 29, 2018 06:05 AM