Trump's Ron DeSantis wins GOP; Dems pick black progressive Andrew Gillum for Florida governor's race
Republican Ron DeSantis will face Democrat Andrew Gillum in Florida's race for governor.
Ron DeSantis, a three-term Republican congressman backed by President Donald Trump, will face Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a progressive black Democrat, in a nationally watched November general election that will test the president's influence.
Gillum's upset win in the primary Tuesday is the first time Florida Democrats have chosen an African-American gubernatorial nominee, and he would be the state's first black governor. He won the primary 34 percent to 31 percent over former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who came in second among a field of seven candidates.
"Are you ready to flip Florida blue?” Gillum said as he addressed supporters after winning the primary. “This is not my moment. This is our moment.”
He received the support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and other progressives across the country despite the shadow cast over his administration by a federal investigation.
Graham quickly threw her support behind Gillum.
"The truth is after 20 years of one-party rule, Florida simply can’t afford another Republican governor," Graham noted in a tweet after the results were announced. "That’s why I’ve pledged to do everything I can to help Mayor Gillum defeat DeSantis in November."
She told supporters later in a speech, “Now, Andrew, win this damn thing.”
Republican primary voters overwhelmingly supported DeSantis in Tuesday's election over Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, a 20-year political veteran considered the front-runner until Trump stepped in. DeSantis, 39, won 56 percent of the vote to Putnam's 36 percent in a field of eight candidates.
DeSantis quickly thanked Trump when he spoke to supporters Tuesday night.
“I want to thank him for his support. Thank you, Mr. President,” he said, then seemed to make a nod to Trump's campaign slogan in his speech.
“I will work my butt off to accomplish great things for this state. Let’s keep Florida great and make it even greater,” DeSantis said.
With the race called for DeSantis minutes after polls closed, Putnam addressed supporters just before 8:20 p.m.
“When one door closes, another one opens,” Putnam said. “Let’s not dwell on the closed one tonight but instead on putting Florida first.”
The 39-year-old Gillum was the only candidate in the Democratic primary to repeatedly call for Trump’s impeachment, an attack that is likely to set an early tone to the general election race against DeSantis, whose gubernatorial bid has so far been based on a platform built by Trump’s endorsement.
Gillum’s surprise victory shocked even some of his supporters.
“If you had told me six months ago that we would be here right now, I would not have believed it,” Tallahassee City Commissioner Curtis Richardson said.
Gillum relied on support from Sanders and other prominent national progressives in a state campaign with limited money. Sanders first tweeted his support for the underdog candidate and then rallied alongside him in Tampa and Orlando.
“To make sure Florida moves in a different direction — a progressive direction — we need to make him the next governor in the state,” Sanders told Floridians a couple of weeks before the primary election.
An FBI investigation looming over the city of Tallahassee is sure to haunt Gillum as he moves toward the November general election. The investigation focuses on the city’s community redevelopment agency, which uses private and public money for infrastructure projects.
While the FBI investigation has not directly implicated Gillum, it halted his fundraising momentum in the race, where he received $6 million between his campaign and political action committee. He does, however, have the backing of longtime national Democratic donors Tom Steyer and George Soros and a long list of liberal Hollywood celebrities.
The self-proclaimed nonmillionaire Democrat's fundraising struggles were similar to DeSantis, who raised only about half of what Putnam did. But in the last weeks of the primary election, DeSantis saw an influx of money from wealthy Republicans, an amount that is likely to soar in the general election.
In the crowded Democratic primary for governor, voters also considered former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene and Orlando businessman Chris King.
Graham, who represented a conservative North Florida district in Congress, had been in the race the longest, and early on was considered the front-runner. That status was challenged by Levine, who used nearly $27 million of his personal money to swamp Florida’s 10 expensive media markets starting in November, far earlier than any other candidate on TV.
The 55-year-old's congressional voting record was also attacked, and her rivals criticized her for being too conservative and not progressive enough to be the Democratic nominee.
While in Congress, for example, Graham voted for the Keystone XL Pipeline, and her primary foes have attacked her for not voting often enough with President Barack Obama. She also has been hit for denying taking political contributions from the sugar industry, which is a central focus for many Florida voters concerned about toxic algae.
As her male opponents attacked her in debates, Graham coined the phrase "Gwen and the men" in the race.
Graham and Levine later were challenged with the entrance in the race of Greene, a brash Democrat who made a failed U.S. Senate bid in 2010. He quickly spent $37 million from his own wealth for television ads, a move that cut into voters supporting Levine, and again gave Graham her front-runner status.
Greene and Levine were two wealthy South Florida Jewish candidates, and from the first moment Greene entered the race, most observers believed he and Levine would fight for the same pool of voters.
Greene attacked Levine in television ads, most notably one called "Levine Latrine" which used stock video footage from other countries in an attempt to poke holes in the former mayor's environmental record.
Greene’s campaign, though, unexpectedly pulled nearly all of his television ads last week, which was viewed as a white flag. Greene also canceled his election night party, another sign he didn't see the likelihood of a win.
For Republicans, the story during the primary was all about Trump. As soon as he formally endorsed DeSantis, Putnam’s double-digit lead in early polls and his money advantage evaporated. DeSantis became the favorite in the race, even though the Iraq War veteran is fairly new to Florida's political scene.
That stands in contrast to Putnam, whose plans to become Florida's next governor had been decades in the making.
The 44-year-old started his career as an elected official 22 as a state House representative. The fifth-generation Floridian then went on to serve five years in Congress, representing the Central Florida-based 12th congressional district.
With decades of experience in public office, he came into the governor's race and quickly out-raised all candidates. But spending nearly $30 million against DeSantis seemed not enough to blunt his rise with the power of Trump. DeSantis spent $16 million in an eight-month period.
Toward the end of the race, Putnam's fundraising dried up and money from Florida's political players shifted to DeSantis. This also came after mistakes made by Putnam's state agency since 2012 were made public. Some errors that haunted his candidacy included lapses in background checks needed to issue concealed weapon permits.