Allegra Kirkland

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.

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ORLANDO, Florida—With only a few weeks until Election Day, 15 paid canvassers from Unidos US gathered around a conference table covered with color-coded maps of the Orlando area. The topic of discussion: the state’s heavyweight U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and his GOP challenger, Gov. Rick Scott. In the battle for control of the chamber, Florida is emerging as one of the key races.

The result of this once-every-six-years race will determine “el futuro de la Florida,” Arianny Eduardo, organizer at the non-partisan advocacy organization, told the assembled group of mostly Latina staffers. And the results, she said, will be “bien cerquitas”—very close.

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Federal prosecutors are reportedly investigating whether senior executives at the Trump Organization violated campaign finance laws to silence women who claimed to have carried out extramarital affairs with President Trump.

Bloomberg confirmed for the first time Friday that the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office probe extends beyond Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other financial crimes in late August. A source told Bloomberg that prosecutors are looking into two senior Trump Organization officials mentioned in Cohen’s indictment as approving the hush money transactions, as well as anyone else at the company who may have been aware of these activities.

Cohen said in open court that he made the payments “at the direction” of Trump, his longtime boss.

Bloomberg reported that one of the executives under scrutiny is “believed to be” the company’s Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, who handled the books for decades. Weisselberg was given partial immunity to testify in the Cohen case.

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Capitol Hill chatter this week focused on the impending departure from the Trump administration of two men central to the story of the Russia probes: Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Counsel Don McGahn.

GOP lawmakers, reportedly thanks to Trump’s lobbying, are dropping their support for keeping Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that the relationship between Trump and Sessions was “beyond repair,” while Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said that he could open up time in the schedule to hold hearings on a replacement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he believed Sessions should “stay exactly where he is,” but that voice of support is unlikely to be enough to save him. The Attorney General is now expected to leave his post after the midterms.

The same is true for McGahn, who has been with Trump since the first days of the administration and has helped provide a first line of defense on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. Some reports say he may depart as soon as Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court.

The President and McGahn, who “cooperated extensively” with Mueller’s probe in over 30 hours of testimony, clashed over the prospect of pardoning former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Trump was reportedly weighing bringing in another counsel more amenable to his desire to grant Manafort a pardon.

After Trump confirmed McGahn’s impending departure via tweet, McGahn, who was surprised by the announcement, reportedly said, “Of course it happened this way.”

A Manafort associate who founded a Washington, DC consulting firm with alleged Russia intelligent agent Konstantin Kilimnik was charged Friday with failing to register as a foreign lobbyist; members of Mueller’s team attended his hearing.

Manafort’s own attorneys are lobbying to get his second federal trial moved from Washington, D.C. to Roanoake, Virginia, citing local “bias” against the onetime Trump associate. The start of that trial was bumped back this week; it will now begin on Sept. 24.

Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen reportedly hatched a plan to purchase decades worth of dirt from the National Enquirer during the 2016 election. It’s unclear if any of the other damaging stories about Trump preserved by the tabloid are playing any role in the Cohen investigation.

After weeks of waffling and sharing his supposed indecision publicly, George Papadopoulos has elected to stand by his plea deal with the Mueller team over lying to the FBI rather than banking on a Trump pardon.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) apparently went to London in an unsuccessful effort to seek information from British intelligence agencies about “Steele dossier” author Christopher Steele.

And Trump’s legal team is compiling a “counter-report” to rebut Mueller’s future reports detailing the fruits of his investigation. It’ll be put out on “personal stationary,” Rudy Giuliani says.

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The first black woman ever nominated to run for governor by a major party vs. a gun-slinging, “illegal”-hunting secretary of state.

The first black man nominated to Florida’s highest office vs. a Trump acolyte who made 121 appearances on Fox in the past eight months.

It’s easy to draw a line between the gubernatorial races in Georgia and in Florida, two of the country’s largest, most diverse, and most populous states. In the Peach State, Stacey Abrams is facing off against hardliner Brian Kemp; the Sunshine State race is a matchup between Andrew Gillum and Rep. Ron DeSantis.

Both contests will hinge in no small part on race. And the results will serve, for many, as a kind of referendum on where the country is headed two years into the Trump presidency.

DeSantis and Kemp are nativists in the Trump mold who have his full backing. The Florida congressman apparently helped moderate a Facebook group full of racist and anti-immigrant bile. He began this week’s general election campaign by cautioning Floridians that a vote for his black opponent will “monkey this up.”

Kemp, meanwhile, executed mass purges of voter rolls during his eight-year tenure as Georgia secretary of state, in campaigns that critics said targeted black voters. He also took to the road in his “big truck” during the primary campaign, promising to “round up” “criminal illegals.”

On the other side of the aisle, Gillum and Abrams won historic candidacies on the strength of black support in their respective states. Rather than just appealing to African-Americans for their Election Day votes, their campaigns showed that Democrats could represent them in office, too — even in the Deep South.

With such high-stakes at play and such polar opposite candidates at the top of the ticket, these will likely be two of the most-watched campaigns of 2018.

“There’s a very stark choice between the two candidates,” University of Florida professor Michael McDonald said of the Florida race, though he could’ve been talking about either.

“That bodes well for interest among voters and turnout in the general.”

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In the country’s most expensive 2018 Senate race, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson just got a boost—free of charge.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) rode a wave of support from young and minority voters to win a surprise Tuesday night primary election, becoming the state’s first black nominee for governor at the age of only 39.

Florida political observers from both sides of the aisle agree that the dynamic, proudly progressive candidate will drive the same sets of sought-after constituents to the polls in November, and that many of those fired-up voters will likely cast a ballot for the 75-year-old Nelson, too.

“Nelson could be riding Gillum’s coattails in the general,” University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald told TPM.

Currently, Nelson is trailing Republican Gov. Rick Scott in public polls and faces a financial disadvantage against the GOP nominee, who has poured millions of his own cash into the race. The incumbent senator has taken some heat in the press for a perceived slow ramp-up to his campaign, a more reserved campaigning style, and an insufficiently vigorous effort to match Scott’s efforts to court the state’s growing Puerto Rican population.

Now that the general election campaign is underway, the Nelson campaign is fighting hard to change that narrative. They went up on the air Wednesday with statewide television ads running in both English and Spanish, and say that they were simply saving their more limited resources for the critical final stretch of the race.

Gillum’s win brings “new energy” into the midterm cycle, Florida Democratic strategist Steve Vancore told TPM.

“People perceive Bill Nelson as the calm, sensible, thoughtful senator,” Vancore said. “Bill Nelson doesn’t get anybody riled up, okay? But he’s comfort food.”

Those qualities play well alongside Gillum’s “energy from underneath, energy from younger voters, energy from minority voters,” he continued.

Gillum himself acknowledged that his core of support complements Nelson’s appeal among more centrist Democratic voters.

“We’ll be a good combination for each other,” Gillum told the Associated Press. “There are constituencies that Sen. Nelson has a stronger network of support with, and I think there are folks I have a stronger network of support with. It just so happens that I think the communities that most resonate with me happen to also be folks from communities that don’t typically participate in midterm elections.”

Elections are notoriously tight in the swing state, and Democrat turnout in midterm races tends to flatline. They have also struggled in recent statewide campaigns, losing the previous five governor’s races. The last two Democrats to win statewide races are Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and Nelson himself.

This week’s primary results give Democrats plenty to feel hopeful about. Gillum surged in the final weeks of the campaign to secure a decisive 40,000 lead over more moderate candidate Gwen Graham, who would have been Florida’s first female governor if elected. He won by huge margins in the heavily-populated Duval, Broward and Dade counties, home to major urban centers like Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. As the Tampa Bay Times put it, “the black vote carried Andrew Gillum to victory” in those areas.

Gillum also scored endorsements from the progressive Working Families Party, Indivisible, youth-vote oriented Next Generation America and gun-safety group Moms Demand Action—huge, engaged organizations who have done much to draw Democratic voters to the polls in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election.

The Tallahassee mayor has sat for a steady stream of cable news interviews since his Tuesday win, and has demonstrated a willingness to throw punches. After his opponent Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) said a Gillum win would “monkey this up,” Gillum knocked him for taking a “page from the Trump campaign playbook” and engaging in needless “race-baiting.”

On Friday, he and Nelson will appear for the first time together at a unity event for Florida’s 2018 Democratic nominees at a union hall in Orlando.

David Bergstein of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told TPM that the boost of enthusiasm among Florida Democrats was a promising sign for November.

“With these two at the top of the ticket, with the strong turnout from Democrats we saw during the primary, and with the Democratic victories in recent special elections, we have a lot of evidence pointing to a very strong expansion of the electorate that benefits Democrats at every level in Florida,” Bergstein said.

The Scott campaign did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment. The Nelson campaign did not provide comment by press time.

South Florida GOP lobbyist Justin Sayfie cautioned that Democrats should not expect that voters will simply vote the party line in November, particularly given Scott’s active efforts to appeal to Latino voters. But Sayfie acknowledged that Gillum’s win is a “net positive” for Nelson.

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It wasn’t just Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Donald Trump and Michael Cohen allegedly devised a plan to purchase decades worth of dirt that the National Enquirer and its parent company had compiled about the playboy real estate magnate.

In the fall of 2016, around the time the pair were negotiating the purchase of McDougal’s story about her alleged 10-month affair with Trump, they grew worried about what could happen to this trove of damaging stories if Trump ally David Pecker left his post atop the tabloid empire, according to the Times report.

The National Enquirer kept a safe of documents about hush money payments and other damaging Trump stories, as the Associated Press recently reported.

Per the Times, Cohen discussed buying all the publication’s dirt with Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg. Though the deal reportedly never came together, the Times’ report sheds new light on a recorded conversation released by Cohen’s attorney.

“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info, regarding our friend David,” Cohen tells Trump in the September 2016 recording, referring to Pecker.

“I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up,” Cohen says later in the conversation.

According to the Times, Cohen was referring to Pecker when he added, “We’ll have to pay him something” for the full stash of negative stories.

The Times reported it is unclear if this proposed plan is part of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office’s investigation into Cohen’s business dealings. Cohen last week pleaded guilty on eight counts of financial crimes, including two campaign finance violations related to the hush money payments.

Weisselberg and Pecker were granted partial immunity to testify in the Cohen probe.

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It’s a matchup that no one expected.

Running on a bold progressive platform, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum coasted to an 11th-hour victory in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, edging out the expected nominee Gwen Graham by more than 40,000 votes. Gillum will face off against the GOP nominee who mounted a late charge to win but seen as a divisive general election prospect: Trump acolyte Rep. Ron DeSantis.

Both nominees won by activating their base. The run-up to November will be a bloody battle for independent voters in which race and the President will be major factors, Sunshine State political observers tell TPM.

“The results are further evidence—if any evidence was needed—that the center in American politics and in Florida politics is continuing to disintegrate at a very rapid pace,” veteran Florida GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich told TPM.

“It’s a very stark choice between the two candidates,” added University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald. “That bodes well for interest among voters and turnout in the general.”

With the exception of one recent Tampa Bay Times poll, Gillum consistently trailed in surveys of the primary, and he lacked the deep pockets of his rivals. Graham had a built-in fundraising network as a former congresswoman and the daughter of a popular Florida governor and senator, while two other top candidates were self-funded.

But the young, African-American candidate was strong on the stump and drew similarly young, diverse crowds to his events. In speeches and primary debates, Gillum expressed unapologetic support for a progressive platform of a $15 minimum wage, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency “in its current form,” Medicare for All, and repealing the state’s Stand Your Ground law.

Final breakdowns of the vote are not yet available, but it appears that young voters and people of color came out for Gillum in droves. He won big in the heavily-populated urban centers of Orlando, Tampa, Tallahassee, and Jacksonville, as well as Alachua County, where the University of Florida is located, and certain predominantly African-American areas along the Georgia border.

An endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) helped push Gillum over the finish line, and the Florida Democratic Party, including his primary rivals, quickly came together behind him after his Tuesday victory.

Gillum sounded a note of unity at his victory party, saying the campaign was “about every single last one of us.”

That message couldn’t be more different than that of his Republican rival. DeSantis campaigned as a Trump acolyte, pledging to support the White House’s agenda as governor and protect Trump from investigations into Russia’s election interference. DeSantis thanked Trump from the stage of his own victory party in Orlando, promising to always take conservative “principled positions.”

Trump returned the love, officially endorsing DeSantis in a June tweet and campaigning by his side in Tampa. That backing changed the dynamics of the race, according to University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. At that point, establishment favorite, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, went from leading in the polls to trailing DeSantis. Putnam never closed the gap.

DeSantis also benefited from some $9 million worth of earned media from his frequent Fox News hits.

Returns show huge turnout among both Democratic and Republican voters—1,508,658 to 1,618,372, respectively. But Florida is a closed primary state, meaning there are tens of thousands of unaffiliated or independents left to be won over. What message resonates better with these voters is an open question.

DeSantis’ bear hug of Trump may have won him the nomination but could cost him in the general, according to Stipanovich, a Never Trump Republican. GOPers who supported Putnam are smarting that a few tweets from the President lost their man the race, and Republicans face more of a challenge than Democrats in uniting their party around DeSantis.

Stipanovich described the GOP nominee as “a Trump clone who if he has any original ideas about governing Florida has carefully concealed them.”

But Gillum faces challenges of his own. As Stipanovich and the University of Florida’s McDonald noted, he was able to fly under the radar during the primary, leaving him less “tested” for the fierceness of a general election campaign.

Republicans are likely to make hay of an ongoing FBI investigation into Tallahassee’s city government. Though Gillum has not personally been named in any subpoenas, it will be easy for his detractors to smear him with a broad brush as caught up in a murky corruption probe.

There’s also the race factor. Gillum, if elected, would become the state’s first black governor. That is a source of inspiration and motivating factor for some Florida voters, and a turnoff for others who may harbor racial resentments.

The sensitivities of the issue surfaced only hours after the candidates accepted their nominations. DeSantis cautioned on Fox News on Wednesday morning that his opponent would “monkey everything up” as governor. The Florida Democratic Party pounced, calling his comment a “racist dog whistle.” DeSantis’ campaign then played cleanup, saying it was “absurd” to characterize his comment as anything other than a repudiation of Gillum’s “socialist policies.”

These early fireworks indicate a fiery, no-holds-barred general election campaign. At the end of it, Florida will be governed either by one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress or by the most progressive Democrat ever to lay claim to the state’s top office.

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