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Wednesday November 13th, 2019 3:53PM

Arizona primary shadowed by death of McCain

By The Associated Press
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PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona voters were nominating candidates Tuesday to replace one of President Donald Trump's fiercest critics in the Senate, a primary contest amid increasing political change in a closely watched political battleground.

The weekend death of Sen. John McCain, who represented Arizona for six decades, means both of the state's Senate seats will change hands by year's end. Tuesday's primary contest was for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, whose opposition to Trump badly hurt his standing with the conservative Republican voters who dominate Arizona's GOP primaries. The state's governor will name a replacement to fill McCain's seat.

The three Republicans competing Tuesday all embraced Trump and distanced themselves from McCain, including establishment favorite Rep. Martha McSally. Trump hasn't officially endorsed a candidate, though he's spoken favorably about McSally and she's appeared with him at the White House.

Arizona was one of three states holding elections Tuesday. Polls closed in most of Florida, where primary voters were choosing nominees for governor, a position that will give the winner's party an advantage in a key political battleground heading into the 2020 presidential campaign. A diverse Democratic field included candidates hoping to be the state's first female or first black governor. Trump appeared to have tilted the Republican race toward Rep. Ron DeSantis, whom he endorsed late last year.

Trump reiterated his support for DeSantis on Twitter Monday, calling the congressman a "special person" who is "Strong on Crime, Borders and wants Low Taxes."

In reliably Republican Oklahoma, two GOP candidates in a runoff race for governor have been battling over who is more supportive of Trump.

In Arizona, problems with voting machines left several polling places out of operation in the Phoenix area Tuesday morning. Election officials in Maricopa County, the state's largest county, said 62 percent of polling locations didn't open on time, but all were operational by midmorning. No problems were reported in other parts of Arizona.

McCain's death has highlighted anew the shift in the Republican Party since he captured the GOP nomination for president in 2008. With his consistently conservative voting record, Arizonans elected McCain to the Senate six times, including in 2016. But his more moderate stance on immigration and his deciding vote last year against Trump's efforts to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law turned off many GOP voters.

A CNN survey in June found that 67 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of McCain, while just 33 percent of Republicans did.

Among those on the Arizona ballot was former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat McCain in 2016. When McCain's family said last week that he was discontinuing medical treatment, Ward speculated in a later-deleted Facebook post that the announcement was intended to hurt her campaign for Flake's seat.

Ward apologized Monday, saying she was bemoaning media coverage rather than the family's announcement.

"I do understand how many could have misconstrued my comments as insensitive, and for this I apologize," Ward said.

Also running for the Senate nomination was former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a controversial immigration hardliner. Trump spared Arpaio a possible jail sentence last year by pardoning his federal conviction stemming from immigration patrols.

McSally, a fighter pilot turned congresswoman in the McCain mold, was hoping Ward and Arpaio split Arizona's anti-establishment vote.

The winner of the GOP primary is likely to face Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who had only token primary opposition. Sinema announced that she was pausing her campaign Wednesday and Thursday, when McCain's body will lie in Arizona's Capitol.

Sinema's and McSally's Senate runs also have created House openings in Arizona, a fast-growing and increasingly diverse state where Democrats are eager to gain a foothold. McSally's district in particular is expected to be one of the most competitive House races in November's general election.

Democrats eyed pickup opportunities in Florida as they try to flip control of the House. One of their best chances is in South Florida, where Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring in a district that should favor Democrats.

Nine Democrats were vying to succeed Ros-Lehtinen, including Donna Shalala, who served as President Bill Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary, and Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a former city councilwoman who claims she was abducted by space aliens as a child.

Florida also had a pair of marquee statewide races that will be closely watched for signs of how the state might swing in the 2020 presidential election.

Gov. Rick Scott, a close political ally of Trump, was expected to coast through his primary bid for Senate, setting up a showdown with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott's decision to run for Senate has sparked a scramble for the governor's mansion in the nation's third-largest state.

Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has held elected office in Florida since 1996, quickly built up establishment support and raised millions of dollars. But Trump's surprise endorsement of DeSantis in December appeared to give the congressman an edge.

Voter Don Cook was still debating between Putnam and DeSantis as he walked into a Fort Lauderdale precinct, but said he was leaning toward Putnam.

"I'm a relationship guy, and the guys I can relate to are who I vote for," the 42-year-old software marketer said, noting his preference for a candidate who gives him "the warm and fuzzies."

The Democratic gubernatorial field in Florida was the most crowded since 1978, the year Bob Graham eventually won the governor's race. Graham's daughter, former Rep. Gwen Graham, is on the ballot this year and has been polling favorably leading up to the primary.

"There's a pink wave building alongside Florida's blue wave," Graham, who would be Florida's first female governor, told supporters in Sarasota Monday. "Women's rights are on the ballot, and we're going to make the difference in this year's election."

Graham led a diverse field. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum could become the state's first black governor, and either former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine or billionaire Jeff Greene could be the state's second Jewish governor.

Sunday's deadly shooting in Jacksonville, which followed the February massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school, was on Franklyn Roman's mind as the independent voter from Miami said he was leaning toward voting for Greene in the Democratic primary.

"I have hopes that he'll stand up against the NRA and do what voters need," Roman, a lawyer, said. "It's gotten out of hand. The latest example in Jacksonville -- when we think it's over, something else happens. And I'm a gun owner."

In Oklahoma, the race for governor between former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and businessman Kevin Stitt could hinge on which candidate voters believe is more loyal to Trump. Stitt has attacked Cornett as not being supportive enough of Trump or his immigration policies, while the former mayor has cast Stitt as a newcomer to Republican politics.

___

Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington and Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, AP polling editor Emily Swanson in Washington, Kelli Kennedy in Miami and Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.

___

On Twitter, follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Nicholas Riccardi at http://twitter.com/NickRiccardi

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