What to watch in Alaska, Florida and Wyoming primaries Tuesday

Self-funders spend millions, and outside groups add more, for open Rooney seat

Freshman Democratic Reps. Donna E. Shalala, left, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell are both GOP targets this year in their Miami-area seats.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Freshman Democratic Reps. Donna E. Shalala, left, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell are both GOP targets this year in their Miami-area seats. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2020 at 6:15am

Some of the last competitive primaries of this cycle take place Tuesday, as three states — Wyoming, Florida and Alaska — choose nominees for fall matchups. 

Two Senate races will be on the ballot, with both parties in Wyoming picking their favorites to replace retiring Republican Michael B. Enzi and four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Dan Sullivan in Alaska. 

But the majority of the attention will be on Florida, where both parties are targeting a handful of House seats in the perennial swing state. Outside spending is also flowing into crowded Republican primaries for two open seats, and embattled freshman GOP Rep. Ross Spano faces a primary challenge. 

The election will also serve as one of the last tests of mail-in ballots before November. Again, the focus will be on Florida, where as of Friday, 1.9 million votes had been cast by mail but 2.4 million of the ballots that have been requested had yet to be returned, according to the Miami Herald.

To be valid, ballots in Florida and Wyoming must be received by 7 p.m. Tuesday, a requirement that has been questioned amid surges of absentee ballot requests and reports of widespread mail delivery delays. 

Here’s what to watch in the three states: 

Wyoming, Alaska attention on Senate

Former Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis has positioned herself as the front-runner in the 10-way GOP Senate primary to replace Enzi in Wyoming. She’s raked in endorsements across the state and amassed more than $1.8 million in donations through July 29 — including a $591,000 personal loan — and had $413,000 in the bank.

She has also benefited from more than $235,000 in outside spending from the Senate Conservatives Fund and $16,000 from the anti-tax Club For Growth. Her next closest challenger, Converse County Commissioner Robert Short, raised $359,000 through July 29, with $68,000 on hand.

On the Democratic side, University of Wyoming professor Merav Ben-David brought in $80,000 through July 29, outraising five other hopefuls.

The GOP nominee will be heavily favored to win in November in a state that President Donald Trump won by 46 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican

Democrats consider Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan to be vulnerable in November and are lining up behind independent Al Gross, a a surgeon and commercial fisherman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In Alaska, there’s a four-way Democratic race for the Senate nomination to challenge Sullivan, a first-term Republican. Orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman Al Gross, who is running as an independent while also seeking the Democratic nod, is heavily favored to win. He has the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the state Democratic Party. He raised $5.2 million, including the more than $700,000 he self-funded, and had $2.9 left in the bank as of July 29. 

The Lincoln Project, a bipartisan group working to defeat Trump, has spent $1.3 million on ads supporting Gross and calling Sullivan a “Trumpist.” And a group called Flip the West has spent $8,000 on text messaging and phone campaigning to support Gross. 

Sullivan, who is unopposed in the GOP primary, raised $7.9 million through July 29 and had $5.3 million left. 

Trump won Alaska by 15 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican

Open Florida seats draw self-funders

Most of the outside spending in Florida’s primaries has gone to crowded GOP races for two deep-red open seats where the winners are likely headed to Congress. 

Nine Republicans are vying in an expensive, contentious primary to succeed retiring Republican Francis Rooney in the 19th District in southwest Florida. Rooney drew GOP flak last fall when he said was open to the possibility of impeaching Trump. (He later voted against both articles of impeachment.)

The GOP primary has been a free-for-all, with public polling showing a tight race between the top four fundraisers. They have jostled over who has demonstrated the most support for Trump and dug into each others’ pasts for evidence of scandals. 

Fast food mogul and Marine veteran Casey Askar and urologist William Figlesthaler have largely self-funded their campaigns with personal loans of $3 million and $1.9 million respectively. Askar had $912,000 left in the bank at July 29, to Figlesthaler’s $241,000. State Rep. Byron Donalds, one of the few Black men in position to win a GOP primary this cycle, raised $1.2 million and had $302,000 on hand. State House Majority Leader Dane Eagle brought in $741,000 and had banked $250,000 on July 29.

The Club for Growth has spent $2.5 million, the majority on TV and radio ads and mailers supporting Donalds and bashing Askar, though some of that money also went to oppose Figlesthaler and Eagle. A super PAC called Conservative Outsider PAC, which Florida Politics reported has financial ties to the club, spent nearly $460,000 on media placements opposing Eagle.

Donalds got an additional $94,000 in outside support from Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch network’s campaign arm, and two other groups. 

Honesty America, a super PAC that has ties to Askar’s campaign, spent $150,000 opposing Donalds, Figlesthaler and Eagle. 

Eagle got $202,000 in support from a super PAC called Concerned Conservatives, which spent a similar amount opposing Donalds and Figlesthaler. The Daily Beast reported this month that the group was funded by Eagle’s state-level PAC. 

College professor Cindy Banyai and financial advisor David Holden are seeking the Democratic nomination. The 19th District backed Trump by 22 points in 2016, and Inside Elections rates the general election Solid Republican.

In the 3rd District in North Central Florida, the GOP race to replace retiring Republican Ted Yoho has been equally crowded, with 10 hopefuls on the ballot. Top three fundraisers Kat Cammack, Judson Sapp and James St. George have been the top candidates in recent polls

St. George, a physician, is leading the money race. He raised $922,000, including a $600,000 loan he gave his campaign, and had $279,000 left at July 29. Sapp, a businessman and former aide to Sen. Connie Mack, raised $770,000, including a $500,000 personal loan, and had $195,000 left in the bank. 

Cammack, a longtime aide to Yoho whose ads have compared D.C. lawmakers to chickens on her farm, had the most individual contributions and raised $492,000 through July 29, with $98,000 on hand. 

The libertarian Protect Freedom PAC has spent $320,000 on direct mail and media placement supporting Cammack. St. George got $30,000 in outside support from the American College of Radiology Association PAC.  

Florida opportunities

Florida Republicans are targeting four districts this cycle, while Democrats have their eyes on three in the state. 

Of their targets, Republicans are the most bullish about the 26th District in South Florida, where Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is challenging freshman Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is defending a seat she won in 2018 by just 2 points.

Gimenez first has to get past Miami-Dade County firefighter Omar Blanco in the GOP primary. 

Blanco has distracted Gimenez with a lawsuit over the misspelling of Gimenez’s name on the check he used to pay the filing fee for his campaign, but is not considered to be much of a threat. Gimenez raised almost $1.2 million to Blanco’s $179,000 through July 29. Blanco received $22,000 in support from outside groups that back firefighters.

Mucarsel-Powell, who is unopposed in the primary, had $2.8 million in the bank at July 29 to $882,000 for Gimenez. Trump lost the district by 16 points, though Republicans have done better here in down-ballot races. Inside Elections rates the general election Tilt Democratic

In the neighboring 27th District, three Republicans are competing to challenge freshman Rep. Donna E. Shalala in a race Inside Elections rates Solid Democratic. Shalala flipped the longtime GOP seat in 2018, defeating former TV anchor Maria Elvira Salazar by 6 points.

Salazar is back for a rematch, and has the support of numerous high-profile Republicans. She’s the only GOP candidate raising serious money ($1.9 million through July 29, including a $120,000 personal loan) and had $1.2 million in the bank. Shalala, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary, raised $2.6 million through July 29 and had $1.8 million banked. 

Trump lost the 27th District by 20 points in 2016. 

In the Orlando-area 7th District, the GOP race to challenge two-term Democrat Stephanie Murphy should be closer. All three Republicans have put their own money into the race and are spending big on the primary.

Radiologist Leo Valentin is the top fundraiser, bringing in $496,000 through July 29 (including a $190,000 personal loan) and banking $185,000. Businessman Yukong Zhao raised $309,000, including $50,0000 he loaned himself, and had $82,000 left in the bank. And Richard Goble, also a businessman, raised $156,000, including $145,000 he self-funded, and had less than $1,000 left. 

Zhao, who is Chinese American, heads an organization that challenges elite universities’ affirmative action admissions policies and filed a 2016 complaint that resulted in a high-profile Department of Justice ruling against Yale University this week. 

In the 13th District, which includes St. Petersburg, Republicans have a competitive five-way primary to take on two-term Democrat Charlie Crist.

Amanda Makki, a health care lobbyist and former Hill staffer, has the support of top House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. She raised $1.2 million and had $484,000 on hand at July 29, but opponents have attacked her as a member of the D.C. elite whose work for Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an occasional party bucker, raised questions about her support for Trump. She is the only candidate with outside support in the race, with $5,900 in digital advertising from a group called American Liberty Fund. 

George Buck, an Army veteran and former university professor, has the support of local pro-Trump groups. He has called the Iran-born Makki a terrorist and was dropped from the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns recruitment program last year after his campaign sent out a fundraising email calling for the hanging of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim. He raised $1 million and had $31,000 on hand on July 29. 

Also running is Anna Paulina Luna, an Air Force veteran and conservative media personality, who raised just under $1 million and had $319,000 left in the bank. 

Democrats going after Mast, Spano, Buchanan

Democrats will choose their nominees Tuesday for two Florida districts they are targeting. 

In the 18th District, along the state’s Treasure Coast, lawyer and Navy veteran Pam Keith has the endorsement of EMILY’S List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, but the group is yet to put any money into the race. Keith raised $282,000 through July 29 but trailed opponent Oz Vazquez, who brought in $450,000. Vazquez, a lawyer who has tried to appeal to moderate voters, ended the pre-primary period with $62,000 in the bank to Keith’s $101,000.

Two-term Republican incumbent Brain Mast faces a primary challenge from retired New York City police officer Nick Vessio, who has questioned Mast’s loyalty to Trump. Mast has the clear financial advantage. He raised $3.9 million and had $1.8 million in the bank on July 29. EDF Action Votes, the political arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, has spent $100,000 on TV ads promoting Mast’s work to protect the Florida coast. Vessio loaned his campaign almost all of the $98,000 he raised, and had $11,000 left on July 29. 

Trump won the district by 9 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the general election Solid Republican

spano
Democrats see Florida Rep. Ross Spano as vulnerable in November, but he has to get past a primary challenger first. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In the 15th District, which stretches from the Tampa suburbs to Lakeland, Democratic strategists see Spano, the incumbent facing a contentious primary, as an easier target. He is under federal investigation and could lose his law license for alleged campaign finance violations for loans he gave his 2018 campaign. Three Democrats are competing to challenge him in November but the race has consolidated around former television investigative journalist Alan Cohn, who raised $589,000 through July 29 and had $130,00 left in the bank, and state Rep. Adam Hattersley, who took in $642,000 and had $236,000 on hand.

On the GOP side, Navy veteran and Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin has put out ads calling Spano a criminal and questioning his loyalty to Trump. A group called Wingman PAC, which spent $116,000 opposing Spano and $9,000 supporting Franklin, has been highlighting the campaign finance scandal in TV ads. Meanwhile, the Club for Growth has jumped in with $200,000 in TV and mail ads attacking Franklin and supporting Spano. 

Spano has had the financial edge in the race. He raised $1.1 million through July 29, and still had $244,000 in the bank. Franklin took in $587,000 and had $104,000 on hand.  

Trump won the 15th District by 10 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race Lean Republican

Democrats are also targeting seven-term GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan in the 16th District, which includes Sarasota and Bradenton and backed Trump by 11 points. Buchanan and Democrat Margaret Good are unopposed in their primaries. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican.

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.