Sanders-Backed Black Mayor or Trump-Backed Congressman: Which Will Be Florida's Next Governor?
By David Smiley, Elizabeth Koh and Emily Mahoney
Florida voters on Tuesday propelled a Trump-endorsed congressman and the African-American mayor of Tallahassee on toward November's general election in the race to replace Rick Scott as governor, setting up a clash of ideologies in the nation's largest swing state.
On the right: U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a 39-year-old conservative, Harvard-educated Iraq War veteran who rode presidential tweets and FOX News interviews to a resounding primary win over Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam.
And on the left: Andrew Gillum, a 39-year-old liberal who with the help of progressive political organizations surged in the last weeks of his campaign to upset a better-funded field.
The surprise matchup figures to be a pure test of partisan strength between a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus and a Democrat who scored his party's nomination with the help of Democratic-Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. Voters will choose between a candidate in DeSantis who wants to build Trump's border wall and believes "people should have a right to pursue the healthcare that they want," and one in Gillum who wants to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and create a Medicare-for-All system.
"In a lot of ways it's the perfect matchup," said Democratic political consultant Ben Pollara. "My big fear about DeSantis has been that he's this avatar of the Trump wing of the party. Is being that person enough to beat a center-of-the-road Democratic candidate? This is a base-versus-base year and I like the way that Andrew fires up the base."
Gillum, who wants to be the first black governor in Florida history, wasn't expected to make it past the primary. He languished in the polls for most of the campaign, and was outspent by about 10-to-1 by his opponents.
But a financial boost from billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros and the support of progressive groups like New Florida Majority helped push him over the front-runner, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who came in just behind Gillum in the primary vote. Gillum's win is also a victory for party purists, who argued that Democrats needed to align behind an unabashed liberal in order to energize the party.
"I want you to know that this thing is not about me," Gillum, who grew up in south Miami-Dade County and advertised himself as the "only non-millionaire" in the Democratic primary, said during his victory speech. "This race is about every single one of us. Those of us inside this room. Those outside of this room. Those who voted for me. Those who didn't vote at all. And those who didn't vote for me because they are Republicans. But I want to be their governor, too."
Supporters at Gillum's party at Hotel Duval in Tallahassee cheered deafeningly and hugged each other as elections returns slowly showed him catching up to Graham and then surpassing her. Between cheers of "Gillum! Gillum!" and his closing slogan, "Bring it home," the candidate, sequestered in a hotel room in the building, tweeted a photo of himself watching the results come in.
"Could be one of those nights...!" he wrote.
DeSantis, on the other hand, has been the presumptive Republican nominee for weeks, and strode into what was always going to be a victory party at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel in Orlando. While Putnam outspent him more than two-to-one, the former Navy JAG officer had the power of Donald Trump behind him in a state where most Republican voters are firmly behind the president.
In the Republican primary, Trump's blessing was enough to help land DeSantis a 20-point victory over Putnam, once considered a clear front-runner to win the party's nomination. The Palm Coast congressman used the first words of his victory speech to genuflect: "Thank you, Mr. President."
But DeSantis bristled at a question Tuesday night about whether he'd need to broaden his base of support to move beyond Trump supporters in the general.
"First of all, the speech I gave: education, environment, jobs, illegal immigration, those things I mentioned every single stop, and we had a very good agenda, it resonated, so we're going to keep focusing on those issues. At the end of the day, we can accomplish all those things for Florida so we've got to get it done," he said.
DeSantis quickly turned his focus to Gillum. "He is way, way too liberal for the state of Florida," he said.
Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Gillum's nomination shows "how far the party has strayed from the days of Bill Clinton." He said Republicans "welcome that contrast."
"This party wants open borders and wants to abolish ICE," he said. "These types of progressive-slash-socialist candidates just don't perform well in general elections."
In some ways, Gillum and DeSantis share some parallels. High-profile investigations indirectly related to the candidates pose potential problems for both their campaigns, with Gillum the top official of a city under the watch of the FBI and DeSantis tied to a president under scrutiny by Special U.S. Justice Counsel Robert Mueller.
Gillum struggled to raise money during the primary election in part, it seemed, because almost as soon as he got into the race news came down that the FBI was investigating corruption in municipal politics in Tallahassee. There's never been any evidence that Gillum has been a subject of that investigation, but an old friend and former mayoral-campaign treasurer has been tied into the probe, and the mayor has at times found himself at least the subject of uncomfortable news articles.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been eager to face a top-of-ticket candidate so closely aligned with a president who has spent his entire tenure under suspicion of Russian campaign ties, and who just last week was accused by his own attorney of secretly and illegally paying off women to silence them during his presidential campaign. DeSantis has shown no signs of trying to distance himself from Trump, with the president cutting a robocall for his campaign in the final days of the primary election and tweeting his satisfaction with the results of the election Tuesday night.
"I just don't think those are the issues voters are focused on," Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz said Tuesday night at the DeSantis election party.
But Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist who's been severely critical of Trump, questions whether the relationship will be a problem in the general election.
"He knew the power of Donald Trump's endorsement was tremendous. He also had to know that if you gamble your entire persona on a cult figure and not on philosophy or principle, when that cult figure has a bad day, so do you," Wilson said. "When Donald Trump gets a cold, candidates who are defined by adoring him get pneumonia. Or Ebola. We'll see."
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