Only hours after their primary election victories, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Rep. Ron DeSantis made it clear that the governor’s race is going to be a nasty contest between two candidates who are polar opposites.
Right after winning the Republican nomination, DeSantis appeared on Fox News, and said this in reference to Gillum, the Democratic nominee, who is African-American.
“The last thing we need to do, is to ‘monkey this up’ by trying to embrace a socialist agenda, with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state,” DeSantis said on Fox. “That is not going to work; that is not going to be good for Florida.”
Later, DeSantis said his comments were directed at Gillum's policies and not the candidate himself. But many, such as Nova Southeastern political scientist Charles Zelden, feel he’s injected racism into the campaign early.
“He has; whether he intended to or not, he has,” said Zelden. “But even if he didn’t mean it in a racist manner, it comes across as a ‘dog whistle’ to racists. And you’ve got to abide by not only what you meant to say, but what people take it as you’re saying. This goes down as definitely an unforced error.”
When asked by CNN’s Don Lemon if he's afraid of President Donald Trump's support for DeSantis, Gillum said his race would be about uniting the state.
“The job of the Governor of the State of Florida is to do what is in the interest of all the people of the State of Florida; that’s what I’ve committed to doing,” Gillum said. “I’m a Democrat, but most importantly I’m a Floridian who wants to build a state that has room for everybody.”
The Florida Democratic Party immediately decried DeSantis' comment as racist and disgusting and sent emails to the media. Zelden says to look for the remark to have a longer-than-normal shelf life during the campaign.
“Basically making that argument that here we have a guy [DeSantis] that’s playing the old dog whistle game, and playing to the racist core of Trump supporters,” said Zelden. “The key is driving out the vote for the Democrats, and that’s what they need more than anything.”
In the early days of the campaign Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was the Republican front-runner. He campaigned longer, raised more money and built the support of the GOP establishment. Then came DeSantis, with President Trump’s endorsement.
“Florida has a closed primary; so the emphasis here is on speaking to the hardcore base who turn out to vote in primary elections,” Zelden says. “The base in Florida is very strongly pro-Trump. Also, that [DeSantis] was on almost every day on Fox News. That gave him a visibility that Putnam couldn’t overcome.”
Andrew Gillum emerged from a field of five candidates, including former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who was seeking to be the state's first female governor and win the office once held by her father, Bob Graham. Zelden contends that Gillum won the nomination with his performance in the first Democratic debate.
“Graham played it too safe; she came across a little bit mealy-mouthed,” said Zelden. “Gillum was the most charismatic member on the state, he made the most sense. The concern was, is this guy electable? Does he have the resources to run in the primary? Obviously, he did.”
It is crucial, says Zelden, for Gillum to coalesce three separate voting blocs – African-Americans and other minorities; young voters, and women who have become disenchanted with the Republican Party.
“He’s going to need to bring out the African-American voters in Obama-like numbers,” Zelden predicts. “He clearly was speaking to younger voters because they absolutely need young voters to come out in large numbers. And then there’s the college-educated women. That gives them a successful coalition.”
One of the most vital pieces of business both candidates must conduct is selecting a running mate. For Ron DeSantis, Zelden says it’s likely to be someone who shares his pro-Trump views.
“If the people who got you into the race are die-hard Donald Trump supporters, picking somebody who’s an establishment undercuts your message,” Zelden says. “In a sense, [the GOP] is trapped. Even though they’re the establishment; the Republicans are the ones who run Florida, they picked themselves a candidate who saw himself essentially as an insurgency candidate.”
Meanwhile, many say that Gillum would do well to add Gwen Graham to the Democratic ticket.
“She brings some balance with more moderate roots; it brings in the gender balance that can serve him well,” Zelden says. “And it’s very telling that in her concession speech, it wasn’t a case of ‘oh, damn we lost, and good luck to you.’ It was ‘we need to win this race, I’m backing him 100 percent.’”
The Panhandle is not expected to embrace Andrew Gillum’s campaign. The goal, says Nova Southeastern’s Charles Zelden, is convincing Democrats in the Panhandle to show up and vote. For both candidates, Zelden believes south Florida in general – and Broward County and Orlando in particular – are vital for a win in the fall.