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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