This is not how one of the most competitive races of 2018 was supposed to go.
Two candidates who had been groomed or were grooming themselves to be governor for years were going to be the nominees for Florida’s open governor’s seat. It was going to be a traditional, somewhat predictable battle of Democrat vs. Republican turnout.
But this is politics in the Trump era, where the extreme often wins out over the expected. After Tuesday’s primaries, it looks like Florida’s governor’s race will instead be an unwieldy clash of ideologies, a microcosm of this era of hyperpartisan politics.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came from behind to win the Democratic nomination over moderate former congresswoman Gwen Graham. It’s the same story for unabashed hard-line conservative Rep. Ron DeSantis on the Republican side, who beat out the state’s agricultural commissioner, Adam Putnam.
The difference for both candidates came from heavy outside hands on the scale. President Trump tweeted his support for the candidate he liked best in Florida’s crowded Republican primary after he saw DeSantis on Fox News frequently. And Gillum, who didn’t lead in a single major poll and was behind in fundraising, got an influx of millions from liberal billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed him.
The contrast between DeSantis and Gillum couldn’t be starker, or a better reflection of the Trump era.
DeSantis was filmed for an ad with his toddler daughter building a border wall with blocks, while Gillum thinks the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be abolished “in all forms.” DeSantis supported Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while Gillum doesn’t just want to keep the health-care law in place; he wants to transform it into Medicare-for-all.
At the center of it all, always, is Trump. Trump has endorsed many candidates who have won competitive primaries this year, but none have bear-hugged him the way DeSantis has.
Democrats think that’s a big mistake in a state that only voted for Trump by a percentage point in 2016. Florida governor’s races are typically won and lost by a percentage point or two. The far left and the far right certainly exist in the state, but in composite, voters tend to elect the candidate who is more moderate. They’ll have no moderate options in this race.
Gillum is the perfect case for Democrats to test whether they need to lean further to the left to win over Trump voters in swing states. He’s the first African American to win the nomination for Florida governor and the second this year to win a gubernatorial nomination in the South, after Stacey Abrams in Georgia. He talks about how his mom was a bus driver and his dad a construction worker, and he is the first of seven siblings to graduate from college.
He purposefully invites the comparisons with Trump.
“The same part of this country that was built by people of color may soon be led by people of color,” he told The Post’s Vanessa Williams. “That, in the shadow of Donald Trump in Washington, would be poetic justice in this country.”
How this plays out next is anyone’s guess. Republicans in Washington say that, yeah, sure, they would have liked a less-Trumpy candidate. But Trump’s approval ratings in Florida are not bad. They stand in the 50s, and a majority of Republicans solidly approve of him. If Gillum wants to make this a referendum on Trump, Republicans say go for it. Republicans will attack Gillum for Tallahassee’s city government being under FBI scrutiny for corruption. Gillum says this involves the city, not himself.
Democratic operatives think Gillum won’t fall into the trap of trying to make this all about Trump. Both candidates are extreme, but Democrats think Gillum is more easily positioned to pivot to the center — or to upset fewer people with his ideological policies. Polls show that Gillum’s far-left position on health care (Medicare-for-all) is much more popular than the one DeSantis has taken on the right (supporting a bill that rolls back protections for preexisting conditions).
Both sides can pore over polls and approval ratings and policies all they want. The fact remains that Florida’s governor’s race is probably going to be one of the most unpredictable and hyperpartisan elections of 2018, which is so very 2018.