Florida’s high-stakes gubernatorial race will be fought between a progressive Democrat vying to become the state’s first black chief executive and a Republican congressman closely allied with President Donald Trump.
In a late primary season shocker, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum defeated the front-runner, former Rep. Gwen Graham, who had led in the polls for most of the campaign. He emerged from a field of five competitive candidates, in which he was the only non-millionaire and only supporter of “Medicare for all” single-payer health care, to become the state’s first black gubernatorial nominee.
“The point has never been lost on me that my name on the ballot is simply a vessel, is simply the name,’ Gillum told a raucous crowd of supporters in Tallahassee on Tuesday night. “But what is underneath that name are all the issues that we care so deeply about.”
Gillum will face Republican nominee Rep. Ron DeSantis, setting up a clear ideological battle between progressive Democrats and a Trump-styled Republican in a major presidential battleground state.
In a statement Tuesday night, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who campaigned for Gillum in Florida earlier this month, cheered the 39-year-old’s “vision” and cast him as an emerging leader in the broader progressive movement.
“No one person can take on the economic and political elites on their own,” Sanders said. “Tonight, Floridians joined Andrew in standing up and demanding change in their community. That’s what the political revolution is all about and Andrew Gillum is helping to lead it.”
Meanwhile, Trump was tweeting his congratulation to DeSantis, touting the congressman’s “fantastic win.”
“Ron will be a fantastic Governor,” Trump wrote. “On to November!”
DeSantis was quick to credit the President when speaking after the results came in.
“I’m not always the most popular guy in D.C., but I did have support from someone in Washington,” he said on Tuesday night. “If you walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, he lives in the White House with the pillars in front of it.”
If the primary was any indication, Democrats in Florida and from around the country seem ready to line up behind Gillum and spend to end two decades of Republican rule in the largest swing state.
Democrats in the race, including billionaire Jeff Greene and the wealthy former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, splayed out more than $100 million for the chance to wrest back control of the governor’s mansion. Gillum got a late boost when liberal megadonors Tom Steyer and George Soros led a group that donated $650,000 to his affiliated political action committee.
As the primary neared, progressive groups – Indivisible Action, The Collective PAC, The New Florida Vision PAC and the Sanders-inspired Our Revolution among them – banded together to invest an additional $3.5 million in get out the vote efforts supporting Gillum, who campaigned as an outspoken critic of the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” gun law, which he said at a protest earlier this month “has no place in a civilized society.”
Progressive organizations that backed Gillum from early on, when he was struggling to crack double digits in the polls, celebrated his win as their own as the projections rolled in.
Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, which came out for Gillum back in May, called Gillum’s success “proof positive that there’s a progressive revolution underway, and the old guard establishment can either get on board or get out of the way.”
Indivisible, the increasingly influential grassroots group formed in the aftermath of the 2016 election, called the primary results a rebuke to Democratic leaders’ conventional wisdom about the state.
“For decades, pundits have acted like the way to win statewide in Florida is to run white, cautious, centrist candidates,” said the organization’s national political director, María Urbina, who touted local chapters’ who lined up early behind Gillum because he “matched their values and embraced an unapologetically progressive platform.”
In his remarks on Tuesday, Gillum also said expanding Medicaid to the estimated 700,000 people who would qualify under the Affordable Care Act would be among his top priorities if he won in the fall, a Democratic priority that has been stymied by state Republicans.
DeSantis, who cruised to victory over state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, ran a campaign focused closely – some critics said almost exclusively – on his support for Trump. He made headlines with an ad, narrated by his wife, that featuring him building a “wall” (of paper blocks) with his young daughter and appearing to read from Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal,” to his son.
Trump campaigned for DeSantis at an event in Tampa late last month, then tweeted his support again on Monday, calling him “a special person who has done an incredible job.”
Putnam was endorsed by state Attorney General Pam Bondi, an early Trump backer.
But in a year when the President’s support has been all but required for Republicans running in contested primaries, there was no substitute for the White House itself.