Opinion writer

The stunning victory of Andrew Gillum in the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary sets up a test for one of the left’s biggest propositions: That the most potent weapon against Trumpism lies in combining an unflinching vow to roll back President Trump’s inhumane and incompetently executed ethno-nationalist agenda with unabashed progressive economics — including the promise of health care that is truly universal, as a matter of right.

The general election will pit Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, an African American with a working-class background, against GOP nominee Ron DeSantis, one of the most slavish, worshipful and virulent Trumpists in the country, which means this race will carry important implications for the 2020 presidential race as well.

Gillum defeated his more moderate primary opponent on a platform that includes Medicare for All, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in its current form, a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and corporate tax hikes to fund education.

Because of Gillum’s economic populism and backing from Bernie Sanders, many will be tempted to treat Gillum’s win as a victory for the ascendant Sanders wing as defined by rising democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And no question, Gillum’s victory is a big win for the progressive left.

But Gillum defies lazy or simplistic categorization. Asked on “Morning Joe” by Joe Scarborough if he had a message to send to DeSantis, Gillum did not get drawn into national media narratives about Trump, and instead spoke directly to voters about their economic challenges. In so doing, Gillum didn’t back off his economic progressivism in the slightest, but he presented it as pragmatic and solutions-oriented.

Gillum talked about health care “as a right, not a privilege,” and called for “real criminal justice reform.” But crucially, he presented the health care and criminal justice systems as “issues that showed up for us time and time again” as he talked to Floridians, which is to say, as blights on people’s actual lives.

Gillum also talked about the need to raise corporate taxes, but he put that in the context of the urgency of raising abysmally low teacher pay, framing the relevant question as “whether we’re going to give major tax breaks to corporations” or “whether we’re going to invest that money in our children.” He added that investing more in education would “produce good educated talent” that “provides a great workforce” for corporations, which he said would make them “want to locate” in Florida.

“Are we going to realign the political system in this state to pour more resources into education over the incarceration of our people?” Gillum asked.

In other words, Gillum presented Florida’s challenges as rooted in current distributional choices and priorities that are misguided and bad for the state in pragmatic terms. He treated hot-button issues such as health care and sentencing reform not as turf on which great ideological battles are settled, but rather as systems in need of reform because they are producing terrible outcomes for real people. (In practice, Gillum’s vow of universal health care will probably mean he will roll out a plan for a state-level version of that, but will also push for the Medicaid expansion, which is very popular.) If anything, this breaks out of simplistic understandings of the Bernie-wing-vs-Hillary-wing narrative.

This will be a racial war

But no question, there is probably no escaping the likelihood that this race will be a racial bloodbath. DeSantis campaigned as a lickspittle Trump Mini-Me, attacking his primary opponent for criticizing Trump over his “Access Hollywood” boasts of sexual assault, and running an ad in which he likened his young son’s building project to Trump’s wall, and read aloud from Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.”

Gillum has come out for abolishing ICE in its current form, and so the xenophobic and racist demagoguing directed at him will be something to behold. Indeed, Trump has already tweeted that Gillum is a “failed Socialist” who “allowed crime” (hint, hint) to “flourish in his city.”

But Gillum has not come out against border enforcement. In his public statements, he has stressed that ICE should be reconfigured as “a more compassionate and focused agency that actually keeps us safer,” but as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Under Trump, Gillum has said, ICE has become a “police and child separation agency,” and he has asserted that “a decision between security or compassionate immigration policy is a false choice,” insisting that “we can have them both.”

In practice — and this will be fleshed out in coming days — this probably means Gillum favors returning to enforcement that de-prioritizes the removal of longtime residents, which Trump replaced with a reign of fear. In that sense, Gillum’s position is in line with many mainstream Democrats. But the point is he sees no need to defensively back off the need to replace ICE, which suggests a willingness to take the fight on this issue to Trumpian cruelty and demagoguery — but with a strong dose of (again) pragmatism directed at the sheer folly, incompetence and squandering of enforcement resources at the heart of Trump’s deportation regime.

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg says there’s an opening here that Gillum may be revealing. “A deep commitment to pragmatic, people-oriented outcomes is perhaps the most natural political response to Trump’s extremism and recklessness,” Rosenberg told me, adding that Democrats such as Gillum are promising to “repair the damage of Trumpism,” but “in the new language of a changing, 21st century America.”

A big test

I will leave the prognosticating to Florida experts. But Gillum does represent a test of sorts. As Crooked Media’s excellent podcast series on the Democratic Party details, a big question for many liberals is whether a new popular majority can be built in a diversifying country by combining a refusal to back off a robust defense of minority rights in the face of Trump’s white identity politics with a kind of pragmatic progressive populist economics that promises more inclusive prosperity for all. The idea is to energize core Democratic constituencies and to win over white voters who are now alienated by both the xenophobic nationalism and the corrupt plutocracy of Trumpism.

It’s early days, but Gillum’s candidacy — which already showed a capacity to energize those Democratic constituencies, and will now play out in a big, diverse swing state — is already taking on those echoes. And if Gillum can pull it off, you can bet that 2020 Democrats will be taking some big lessons from it.