The general-election campaign in Florida is likely to mirror that of Georgia, where the progressive Democrat Stacey Abrams is bidding to be the nation’s first African American woman to serve as governor, and is going up against Brian Kemp, a gun-toting Trump-style conservative who championed his disdain for “political correctness.”
“There is no clearer differentiation than a race between Andrew Gillum running to be the first African American elected statewide in Florida versus someone from the Trump wing of the Republican Party,” said Quentin James, the founder of the Collective PAC, a group supporting progressive black candidates that spent nearly $2 million on Gillum’s behalf during the primary.
Rather than swing back toward the middle, both Gillum and DeSantis will be trying to turn out their party’s base, much like Abrams and Kemp. The Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson predicted the contest will be “one of the most brutal races in the country.”
“This is a battle of the edge cases,” Wilson said.
As if on cue, DeSantis launched his general-election campaign with an appearance Wednesday morning on Fox News, in which he labeled Gillum “articulate” and then warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up”—using a word that has historically been deployed as a racist slur against African Americans.
“This went off the rails fast!” Wilson told me a few minutes after the remark had flown around Twitter.
Gillum, 39, had been mired in third or fourth place in public polls, but he closed the gap in the race’s final weeks with help from a visit from Sanders and infusions of money from the liberal billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros. Seeking to excite the Democratic base, he ran on an ambitious liberal platform of expanding Medicaid, investing heavily in public education, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and, though the governor of Florida has no power to do so, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and impeaching Trump.
Though Trump’s endorsement had made DeSantis the clear favorite by Tuesday’s primary, his rapid rise in the GOP was once even more unlikely than Gillum’s among Democrats. A backbencher in just his third House term, DeSantis made an aborted run for Senate in 2016 when Senator Marco Rubio was running for president. He got Trump’s attention by defending him frequently on Fox News and surged in the polls once the president formally endorsed him. DeSantis went all in with Trump, running a tongue-in-cheek ad in which he teaches his young daughter to “build the wall” with toy blocks.
Pledging allegiance to Trump in the Sunshine State
Gillum’s come-from-behind, three-point victory over Graham and two wealthy Democrats from South Florida, Philip Levine and Jeff Greene, surprised even some of his allies. James told me that while internal polls showed Gillum winning by the end of the race, he didn’t necessarily believe them because independent public polls showed him so far behind. “For us, it was a surprise,” James said. “But we definitely thought he could eke it out.”