Just weeks ago, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was treated by many people as little more than an afterthought in Florida’s crowded Democratic primary for governor.
But a stunning victory Tuesday instantly catapulted Gillum onto the national stage in what is certain to be one of the country’s most closely watched gubernatorial races, as he faces off against Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis, an acolyte of President Donald Trump.
Gillum, 39, drew the support of national liberal groups and donors, including progressive patriarch U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros.
The Tallahassee mayor had consistently trailed former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine throughout the Democratic primary.
But, in pulling off the upset Tuesday, Gillum nailed down decisive leads in vote-rich urban counties such as Duval, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Those margins helped Gillum coast to victory Tuesday with a 3 percentage-point edge over Graham by the end of the night.
While Gillum hopes to make history as the Sunshine State’s first black governor, DeSantis is trying to parlay his support from Trump into a gubernatorial win.
But the question remains whether either candidate can translate his primary election victory into a November triumph.
“What you’ve got is the ultimate base-turnout election on both sides. Ron DeSantis isn’t going to reach a bunch of moderates in the middle, and neither is Andrew Gillum. These are two guys who represent the absolute edge of their parties,” GOP consultant Rick Wilson, the author of the book “Everything Trump Touches Dies,” told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
The outcome of the governor’s race in November “is going to show us the heart of Florida,” Allison Tant, a former chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party who is backing Gillum, told the News Service.
“And it’s going to show us if we are a state that wants more for each other than the division that DeSantis brings,” she said. “It’s going to be a very telling time for Florida, and we’ll see what happens.”
Gillum made no secret of his strategy of relying on minority voters — and others he claims have historically been ignored by candidates — to boost him to victory in the primary.
Gillum frequently points out that his party has lost each of the last two governor’s races in Florida by fewer than 70,000 votes, despite having what he described as “good candidates” he actively worked to help elect.
“What we have failed to do is to turn out the very base of voters that we need if we want to win. They’re largely black voters, brown voters, younger voters and poor voters,” he told the News Service in a recent interview.
But, the mayor conceded, those voters are also “a different and difficult constituency to motivate and organize,” especially because they tend to stay home during midterm elections.
That’s where grass-roots aid comes in from groups like NextGen, the group backed by Steyer that targets young voters; the Florida Immigrant Rights Coalition; Color of Change; New Florida Majority; and a slew of other organizations that target minority voters.
“We are ecstatic about Andrew’s victory. It shows that Democratic voters are looking for someone who shares the experiences and values that they do and are looking for people who stand up and tell the truth and run an authentic and unapologetic campaign,” Olivia Bercow, a spokeswoman for NextGen America, told the News Service.
NextGen issued more than 300,000 text messages, knocked on 80,000 doors and made “a crazy amount of calls” on Gillum’s behalf, Bercow said.
“So we will be doubling down on those efforts to make sure that Andrew is elected in November and defeats Ron DeSantis,” she said. “We’re definitely in this race for the long haul.”
Stricter gun laws, more strident environmental policies and more spending on education were among the issues Gillum stressed during his year-long campaign for governor.
In an interview Wednesday morning with CNN, Gillum said his primary victory proved “we can run wholly on our values.”
“We can talk to people in a commonsensical way about the issues that confront them. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the rural Panhandle of Florida, in the I-4 corridor, in the very populous, very diverse South Florida, if you work in multiple jobs to make ends meet, you’re not happy,” he said. “What my candidacy offered was, quite frankly, a foil for all those issues to say, you know what, we can talk about those issues, excite voters, and give them something to vote for, and not just against.”
Among registered voters in Florida, Democrats and Republicans are almost evenly split, and those with no party affiliation — who are shut out of voting in primaries — make up about 27 percent of the electorate.
Gillum’s challenge in November lies in wooing independent voters and more mainstream Democrats, according to experts.
“He’s going to have to put together an Obama-esque coalition. He can’t just do it with progressives. He can’t just do it with African-Americans. The key is to look at Hispanic voters in Florida. Who’s going to be his running mate? You’re going to have to energize this growing group of moderate Hispanics,” University of Florida political-science professor Daniel Smith told the News Service.
Gillum will have to “try to define himself to a broader general electorate than Democratic primary super voters” to pull off a November win, Smith predicted.
The key for Gillum, as with most Democratic candidates in midterm election years like 2018, is to “get the base out,” said Florida Democratic consultant Matthew Isbell, who supported Graham.
“At the end of the day, you don’t know what the white moderate independents are going to do. You need to get your base out because DeSantis is certainly going to galvanize his base,” Isbell said.
Gillum can sway white, working-class voters by emphasizing that the GOP, which has had control of the governor’s mansion and the state Legislature for nearly two decades, “hasn’t done much for them,” and that “the quality of life has eroded under their watch,” Isbell advised.
Gillum needs to generate excitement among Democrats and gin up animosity toward DeSantis, who is “a pretty strong bogeyman for progressives and moderates,” Isbell said.
“This is a test. The argument from progressives was that you needed a dynamic candidate to bring people out. Well, now is the test. This is the laboratory of that test. In the third-largest state of the nation, we have nominated a dynamic liberal who excites a lot of people. The question now is, will they show up?” Isbell said.