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The Story Behind Andrew Gillum's Shocking Election Victory in Florida

The Tallahassee mayor's win in the Democratic primary for governor is one of the year's biggest upsets. Can a progressive beat a Trump-endorsed candidate in this red state?

Florida Primary
Andrew Gillum with his wife at his side addresses his supporters after winning the Democrat primary for governor on Tuesday.
(AP/Steve Cannon)
Andrew Gillum's victory in Florida's Democratic primary for governor Tuesday is being hailed by progressives as a triumph for their values, while being spun by Republicans as proof that Democrats have strayed too far to the left.

On Wednesday, President Trump described Gillum as a "failed Socialist mayor" on Twitter. Trump endorsed Congressman Ron DeSantis, who won the Republican nomination.

Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, has taken liberal positions on a host of issues, from gun control and "Medicare for all" to legalized marijuana and a $15 minimum wage. He came from far behind in the polls to beat Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman who ran on a more moderate platform.

But Gillum's shocking upset was built on more than just progressive ideas.

As the only African-American candidate in the large Democratic field, his victory may have had as much to do with demographics as ideology (although the two factors are not necessarily mutually exclusive). Gillum also benefited from in-fighting and attacks between the other contenders as well as a divide among their geographic areas of support. 

"For the first time in many a year, he was able to elevate minority turnout," says Susan MacManus, a retired political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "That's been a problem for Democrats in the last several elections."

Gillum's argument throughout the campaign was that, rather than trying to win over moderates with a centrist message, Democrats need to appeal strongly to progressive voters who want candidates who aggressively advocate their preferred policies.

"Our theory of the case is that Florida Democrats in midterms are liable to stay home unless they have something to vote for, instead of voting against," says Geoff Burgan, Gillum's campaign spokesman.

The result is that, as in neighboring Georgia, Florida voters picking a new governor will face a choice between candidates who are hard right or far left. Both Gillum and DeSantis will have to find ways to appeal to voters in the center because nearly 30 percent of the state's electorate is made up of people registered with minor parties or no party affiliation. Those voters were unable to participate in the closed Democratic and GOP primaries.

Much of the Republican establishment had lined up behind Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, concerned that DeSantis was too closely tied to Trump to win in November. Now questions are being asked about whether Gillum is too liberal to win in Florida, where Republicans have prevailed in the last five elections for governor.

"For Democrats, Gillum and the progressives won and eliminated any chance the party had of winning in November," says Darryl Paulson, an emeritus government professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.


How Gillum Won

After trailing at the back of the pack for most of the primary season, Gillum began to climb at just the right time. His late campaign bus tour, which drew crowds of young voters and African-Americans, was "brilliant," says MacManus.

"It does seem that, as an African-American candidate, he was able to mobilize black voters," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. "It wasn't captured in the polls or at least initially in the early voting until 'souls to the polls,'" the last day of early voting on Sunday when many voters are bused directly from churches to polling places.

Jewett notes that Gillum stood essentially alone on the progressive wing of the party. Chris King, an entrepreneur, was also sounding liberal notes, but he ended up taking just 2.5 percent of the vote.

Graham, along with former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and billionaire developer Jeff Greene, offered a more moderate, pro-business appeal. For much of the race, Levine appeared to be Graham's strongest competitor. He and Greene spent heavily on television advertising. 

While the moderates were taking shots at each other, Gillum came out comparatively unscathed.

"Most of the time, it seemed to be a two-person race between Graham and Levine," says Pete Dunbar, a former GOP legislator and gubernatorial aide. "They were exchanging the negative ads, and Gillum was under the radar."

Levine spent nearly $40 million on the race, while Greene spent $35 million. Graham spent $16 million, while Gillum -- who often noted he was the "only non-millionaire" in the race -- spent less than $7 million. Gillum did receive additional support from progressive groups, notably NextGen America, which is funded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer.

With Levine and Greene both hailing from South Florida, Graham concentrated her efforts elsewhere. That proved to be a mistake. Gillum benefited from higher-than-normal turnout in counties such as Miami-Dade and Broward. In both those counties, Graham finished third. It was enough for Gillum to edge Graham, 34 percent to 31 percent.

Turnout on the Democratic side was up by 80 percent, compared with 2014. But Republican enthusiasm ran nearly as high, with turnout up 70 percent.


Trump's Support Key for GOP

Outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited and seeking a U.S. Senate seat, won both his gubernatorial elections by a single percentage point. The conventional wisdom among pundits was that the more moderate Graham would have been favored against DeSantis, who is a founding member of the no-compromise conservative Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House.

Most of the state's Republican and business establishment lined up early behind Putnam, a former member of Congress who was elected to the state legislature at age 22. Although Putnam had worked party circles diligently for years, he proved to be no match for DeSantis, who has made dozens of appearances on Fox News this year defending Trump, earning the president's endorsement -- and a presidential campaign rally in Tampa last month -- in return.

DeSantis made support for Trump and his immigration policies the center of his campaign, going so far to produce an ad in which he instructs his toddler children to build a wall with blocks and say "make America great again."

DeSantis barely discussed Florida issues. Putnam sought to turn that into a weakness, frequently noting that the state couldn't be understood from inside a TV studio in Washington. That charge barely registered with Republican voters.

"There's a phenomenon that's going understated here," says MacManus. "Longevity in office is not an asset this time around."

Putnam spent roughly double what DeSantis did during the campaign, but DeSantis skunked the early favorite, winning by a 20-percentage-point margin.


Can a Progressive Win in Florida?

Ned James is a registered Republican who lives in the Florida area. He voted for DeSantis four years ago in a congressional primary but supported Putnam for governor. He's not sure he can vote for DeSantis now.

"He's too closely aligned with Trump," James says. "If he supports somebody who exhibits that sort of behavior, that demeanor, I can't support somebody like that."

James says he "certainly" would have voted for Graham in the general election against DeSantis. He's undecided but worries that Gillum might be too liberal on policy for his tastes.

Gillum has called for Trump's impeachment and supports abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He wants to increase corporate income tax rates to generate an additional $1 billion for public schools. (Florida does not have a personal income tax.) 

Republicans are tarring Gillum as a socialist, with DeSantis warning he could turn Florida into Venezuela.

"The fact that he says he wants to raise corporate taxes, that typically would be considered the death of your chances in Florida," Jewett says. "It may be yet."

Republicans will also attack Gillum based on the crime rate in Tallahassee as well as an ongoing FBI investigation into municipal corruption there. Gillum has not been tied directly to any criminal activity, but some Democrats worry that it is still a cloud that could mar his chances.

"Even if Gillum has done nothing wrong, the Republicans will simply crucify him for being mayor of the city where an FBI investigation has been ongoing for two or three years," Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller, who supported Graham, said before the primary.

DeSantis will try to appeal to voters in the center by noting the state's low unemployment rate and strong economic performance under Scott. He'll also attack Gillum as unacceptably liberal. 

Appearing on Fox Wednesday, DeSantis said that Florida voters shouldn't "monkey this up" by electing Gillum. Democrats immediately decried that as a racial slur.


Change, Not Centrists

Either Gillum or DeSantis would represent a generational change in leadership. Gillum is 39, while DeSantis turns 40 next month.

"Florida's demographics are changing," notes MacManus, the USF political scientist. "Gen Xers and younger are now a majority of voters in Florida. You're seeing a sea change with the rise of the younger generation."

Gillum has said that younger voters may not support every item on his agenda or even think he has a chance of enacting them. But they do want something bold, he argues, plus a sense that politics can be "reformed."

Centrists fared poorly in other gubernatorial primaries on Tuesday.

In Arizona, Democrats selected David Garcia, a college professor who wants to abolish ICE and provide free college tuition. He will try to unseat GOP Gov. Doug Ducey.

In Oklahoma, Republican voters selected mortgage executive Kevin Stitt over former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett in a runoff. Cornett had placed first in the June primary and would have been considered a stronger favorite in the general election against Democrat Drew Edmondson, a former state attorney general. But Stitt won the runoff, taking 55 percent of the vote Tuesday.

"Mick got beat because he had an ideological ceiling for a moderate in the Republican primary electorate," says Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma.

In Florida, candidates typically appeal to their bases during primaries then "run as fast as you can to the middle" to win over independent voters, says Dunbar, the former legislator. An early sign of the extent to which Gillum or DeSantis intend to do that will come with their selections for running mates.

But in their media appearances following the primary, neither candidate sounded as if he intends to soften his message.

"The collapse of the political center is fraught with danger for American politics," laments Paulson, the USF-St. Petersburg professor. 

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.

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