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Can Andrew Gillum Break Republicans' Winning Streak in Florida?

The state hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1994, but the progressive nominee is consistently -- and narrowly -- ahead in the polls against Republican Ron DeSantis.

Election 2018 Governor Gillum
(AP/Lynne Sladky)
Florida doesn't appear to offer fertile ground for liberal Democrats. Republicans have won the last five straight elections for governor and 19 of the last 20 races for statewide executive offices.

Yet Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for governor with a progressive platform that includes universal health care, impeaching President Donald Trump and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has led all but one of more than 20 polls conducted since the August primary.

The Democrat's current lead against Republican Ron DeSantis is 3 points, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.

"Gillum is too liberal to have won any Florida statewide election in the past 30 years, but he is well on his way to winning this one," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. 

There's no question, however, that DeSantis could come out ahead. As of Monday, more registered Republicans cast ballots than Democrats in early voting. The last two races for Florida governor -- as well as the last two presidential contests in the state -- were decided by a single percentage point.

But DeSantis hasn't been able to achieve any momentum following his easy win in the GOP primary. Since August, he has been engulfed in controversies about race and shaking up his campaign's leadership.

"DeSantis could still pull it out," says Susan MacManus, a retired political scientist at the University of South Florida at Tampa. "But if he loses, people are going to understand why." 

Florida is the only highly populated state with a competitive race for governor this year. Democrats appear certain to hold onto California and New York, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott should easily win a second term in Texas. Meanwhile, money is freely flowing into Florida from prominent billionaire donors, such as Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers on the Republican side and early Gillum backer Tom Steyer.

Both President Trump and former President Obama are making campaign appearances in Florida this week.

When Gillum outpaced a field of more moderate candidates in the primary, even some Democrats worried that the party had blown a winnable race by nominating someone so far to the left. But he has a strong chance to pull off one of the most surprising wins of the year, likely becoming a national star for his party in the process.


Andrew Gillum's Appeal

Only two African-Americans have ever been elected governor of any state: Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who first won in 2006, and Doug Wilder of Virginia, in 1989. Gillum is in a stronger position than his fellow black Democratic nominees this year. Stacey Abrams narrowly trails a tight race in Georgia that appears to be heading for a runoff, while Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan holds a double-digit lead over Ben Jealous.

"There is maybe a little bit of momentum behind Gillum because he could be the first black governor of Florida and people want to be a part of that," says Ryan Wiggins, a Republican consultant in Florida. "It shows acceptance, and it's historic."

In terms of in-person early voting thus far, black turnout is up about 250 percent, compared to 2014, while turnout among Hispanics has tripled. Turnout among whites is up 97 percent.

Like other Democrats around the country, Gillum is hoping to boost turnout among not only African-Americans but young voters -- another demographic group that traditionally fails to turn out in high numbers for midterm elections. Gillum is 39, and his progressive agenda has generated excitement among many younger Floridians. Voters born after 1965 -- Gen Xers and Millennials -- now make up a majority of the state's registered voters.

"This generational replacement is taking place, and the younger generations are more favorably disposed to an acceptance of diversity," says MacManus. "They were Bernie Sanders voters, many of them, and they've been energized by Gillum."

With Gillum running on a hard-left agenda and DeSantis running as a staunch conservative, Florida is perhaps the year's premier "base vs. base" race.

"In Florida this year, we have one candidate who's more Bernie Sanders and one who is more Donald Trump," says Wiggins.

But in Florida, independents -- who register as having "no partisan affiliation," or NPA -- account for 3 million registered voters, more than a quarter of the total. Independents can't vote in Florida's primary. Since then, polls have shown an advantage for Gillum among independents, whose early vote totals are also surging this year.

"The swing vote is NPAs, and the bulk of the NPAs are young," MacManus says.

As for Democratic voters, they have united behind Gillum, despite his plurality victory in the crowded primary. 

"In some other years, there might be some more moderate to conservative Democrats who might say they can't vote for a progressive like this," says Jewett, "but in the age of Trump, they're feeling loyalty to their party regardless."

Still, Gillum faces some headwinds. 

Aside from the state's Republican tilt, an FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee has ensnared a once-close Gillum associate. Last week, news reports revealed that Gillum himself accepted a ticket to the Broadway show "Hamilton" from an undercover FBI agent. Soon after, news broke that an agent posing as a developer looking to do business with the city had paid the catering bill for a 2016 Gillum fundraiser. "This is a guy who has consistently used public office to feather his own next," DeSantis said on Monday.

DeSantis also continually points out that Tallahassee experienced a record number of murders last year, although Gillum counters that the city's overall crime rate has come down.


Ron DeSantis' Struggles

DeSantis has hitched his wagon closely to Trump's star. That was a big advantage for him among Republican primary voters but has proven to be less helpful in the fall.

"I think everyone recognizes that DeSantis won the primary for one reason, which is Trump's support," says Mike Haridopolos, a Republican who was formerly president of the Florida Senate. "That means he gets all of Trump's supporters, but he also gets all the Trump opponents as well."

DeSantis, who was a founding member of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House, stepped down from his congressional seat in September, soon after winning the Republican primary.

DeSantis appeared to come out of nowhere in that race. The early favorite was state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a fixture in Florida GOP politics for more than 20 years and the favorite of business groups and most party leaders.

DeSantis spent a great deal of his time in Washington making regular appearances on Fox News, typically defending Trump. He ran an ad during the primary race showing him explaining concepts like "make America great again" and "build the wall" to his young children. 

But DeSantis spent little time campaigning in Florida before leaving Congress, rarely talking about state issues other than the condition of the Everglades. While Putnam had spent years wooing conservative activists throughout the state, that wasn't true of DeSantis. Trump's endorsement was enough to propel DeSantis to an easy primary win, but it didn't help him build a competitive campaign infrastructure.

"Even though DeSantis won the primary handily, he didn't have any ground game," says Haridopolos.

Haridopolos says that DeSantis will get a boost from the stronger campaign organization set up by GOP Gov. Rick Scott for his U.S. Senate race. Since winning the primary, DeSantis has shaken up his own campaign team, hiring a new campaign chair, who in turn has changed media consultants. Some Republicans are convinced he's found better footing.

"The campaign, while maybe being slow to pick up and go, has improved significantly," says Pete Dunbar, a Tallahassee lobbyist who has served in the state legislature and as a gubernatorial chief of staff. "The last month to five weeks have been good for him. He has gone from being down by double digits to making it a horse race."

But some observers contend that DeSantis has made the same mistake that Hillary Clinton made in her 2016 campaign against Trump: trying to paint his opponent as unacceptable, without making much of a positive case for himself. Meanwhile, DeSantis' policy agenda on central issues has been vague. He didn't put a health plan on his campaign website, for example, until last week.

"He hasn't presented in my mind a lot of compelling reasons to vote for him," says Jewett. "It's more attacks on Gillum."


The Race Factor in Florida's Election

Race has emerged as a major factor in the election.

The day after the primary, while extolling Florida's economy, DeSantis warned voters not to "monkey this up" by electing Gillum. DeSantis denied that he intended the comment as a racial slur, but not everyone was convinced.

Gillum has confronted DeSantis with accusations that he facilitated a Facebook group that hosted anti-Semitic posts, that he spoke at a conference alongside white supremacists and that he refused to return a contribution from a donor who referred to Obama using the n-word.

"Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist," Gillum said during a debate last week.

DeSantis dismissed Gillum's remarks as "nonsense" and went back on the attack, accusing Gillum of supporting an anti-law enforcement agenda.

DeSantis continually suggests that Gillum could ruin Florida, turning it into something resembling a failed socialist state like Venezuela. Such attacks aren't convincing all voters, suggests Wiggins, the GOP consultant. 

For one thing, some of Gillum's ideas that garner the most attention, such as impeaching Trump and abolishing ICE, aren't within the purview of any governor. Tax increases certainly are, but Republicans appear certain to keep control of the state House, even if the state Senate may be at risk. That minimizes the potential harm Gillum can do, even in the eyes of voters who think he's too far left.

"Gillum's going to be held in check by a Republican legislature," says Wiggins. "There are some people looking at it as, 'he's not that much of a threat.'"

But Republicans are hoping that a recent ruling leaving the replacement of three retiring state Supreme Court justices up to the next governor will help fire up their voters.

"Gillum would have difficulty as governor passing legislation, but he could greatly influence the court," says Haridopolos.


How Hurricane Michael Could Impact Florida's Election

Some Republican voters could have a hard time voting at all. Hurricane Michael did its worst damage along the Panhandle, tearing through several solidly Republican counties.

Haridopolos says that he's optimistic that the month between the storm making landfall and Election Day will be enough time for people to vote. And one of Trump's Florida appearances will be in Pensacola on Saturday, just west of the hardest-hit areas.

Still, many polling places have been wrecked and, for people just starting to rebuild their lives, taking the time to vote might not be a top priority.

"It's absolutely huge," says Wiggins. "The Panhandle doesn't win the state for anyone, but a Republican cannot win the state without the Panhandle."

The fact that it's practically impossible at this point to poll the Panhandle means that DeSantis' strength might be understated in surveys. After two single-point races for governor, no one is predicting a blowout this year, in which case there's no telling who might win.

But Gillum's appeal among typically low-turnout voters and DeSantis' struggles give Democrats real reasons to hope that next Tuesday's election will bring two decades of unbroken Republican control to an end.

Want state and local results? Sign up for our free post-election webinar.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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