In Senate primary, Arizona Republicans compete over who loves Trump most

(Reuters) – A contentious three-way U.S. Senate battle in Arizona on Tuesday among Republicans fighting to prove the depth of their allegiance to President Donald Trump tops the last big day of state nominating contests before November’s elections.

In Senate primary, Arizona Republicans compete over who loves Trump most
FILE PHOTO: Kelli Ward campaigns at the Gunsite academy in her bid to become the Republican nominee for an open U.S. Senate seat in Paulden, Arizona, U.S., August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Conor Ralph/File Photo

Voters in Florida also go to the polls to pick candidates for Nov. 6, 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, a southwestern state that Trump won by 4 percentage points in the 2016 White House race, 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.

The contest could be critical to the balance of power in the Senate in November, as the Arizona seat of retiring Republican Jeff Flake, a frequent 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 hardline conservatives. In a show of confidence, McSally has already launched advertising aimed at her likely Democratic opponent in November, U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema.

Polls have shown Sinema with narrow leads over McSally, and a wider gap between her and the other two candidates.

In Senate primary, Arizona Republicans compete over who loves Trump most
FILE PHOTO: Kelli Ward fires a gun as she campaigns at the Gunsite academy in her bid to become the Republican nominee for an open U.S. Senate seat in Paulden, Arizona, U.S. August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Conor Ralph/File Photo

But the race to embrace the polarizing Trump could make it harder in November for the Republican winner. All three Republicans have fought over who is closest to Trump and most enthusiastic about his agenda, highlighting the praise Trump has offered them over the past few years.

McSally boasts she has been invited to the White House for movie screenings, and Ward features life-sized cardboard cutouts of Trump at many events. Arpaio, who built a national reputation as an immigration hardliner, won a pardon from Trump after he was convicted of criminal contempt in a case involving racial profiling.

“The entire campaign has been defined by the effort to show who is the better, more enthusiastic supporter of the president,” said Stan Barnes, a veteran Republican strategist in Arizona.

Trump has not endorsed any of the three Republicans.

“The president is staying out of this primary because he has three candidates that he very much likes,” Barnes said.

MCCAIN’S DEATH OVERSHADOWS RACE

The contest has been overshadowed in recent days by the death on Saturday of John McCain, Arizona’s longtime Republican senator. All three Republicans had distanced themselves from McCain, who frequently feuded with Trump, and Ward suggested that his announcement before his death that he was stopping medical treatment was timed to hurt her campaign.

In Senate primary, Arizona Republicans compete over who loves Trump most
Slideshow (3 Images)

McCain’s death narrows the number of Republican-held seats in the 100-member U.S. Senate to 50, with Democrats controlling 49. Republican Arizona Governor Doug Ducey will appoint a member of his own party to succeed McCain after the funeral.

In Florida, Trump has waded into the state’s hotly contested Republican gubernatorial primary, endorsing conservative U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis over Adam Putnam, the state agriculture commissioner and a former U.S. congressman.

DeSantis, who aired a campaign ad showing him urging his toddler daughter to “build that wall” with toy blocks, now leads in polls.

Trump carried Florida by just over 1 percentage point in 2016.

The Republican winner will face whoever emerges from 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.

Both Arizona and Florida feature primaries for several competitive U.S. House races that could prove crucial for the Democrats’ chances to take control of the House. Democrats see several Republican-held districts in south Florida as prime opportunities to pick up seats.

After Tuesday’s primaries, only five states remain to pick candidates in early September before full attention turns to the November election, when all 435 House seats, 35 Senate seats and 36 governors’ offices are at stake.

Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney

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