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.