The race to be the next Florida governor is one of the most closely watched, highest-stakes governor’s races of 2018. It epitomizes the Trump era of politics with two strong personalities with irreconcilable politics and, as a debate Wednesday night underscored, downright nasty attacks.
Less than two weeks out, it’s possible that a Democrat could win that seat for the first time in two decades.
That would be a huge victory for Democrats, beyond just winning the race. They have been locked out of redistricting power in Florida, as they have in many other states, for the past decade because Republicans controlled the map-drawing process after the 2010 Census. But the winner of this race will have a say in how congressional and state legislative districts will be drawn for the next decade.
Polls show Democrat Andrew Gillum, a surprise winner of a competitive Democratic primary in the summer, leading Republican Ron DeSantis, who was also a dark horse to win his party’s nomination until President Trump, who liked seeing the hard-line congressman on Fox News, endorsed him.
Gillum’s campaign style and compelling backstory — his mom was a bus driver and his dad a construction worker — combined with his potential to be Florida’s first black governor mean he has the potential to build a diverse, young coalition of supporters not seen since President Barack Obama won the state last in 2012.
Or he could fall short, like the past two Democrats running for governor have. Insiders say the race is probably going to be much closer than the nearly six-point lead Gillum averages in public polling. That’s because it encompasses so many of the major political battles in 2018 that it’s unwieldy and unpredictable, said Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida and a Florida political analyst.
"Could a Democrat possibly win? I have to say yes,” she said. “Could a Republican win? Yes. This is the most interesting race we've had in Florida in years."
Here’s a rundown of the main dynamics that are shaping this race, which despite leaning slightly toward Democrats remains quite unpredictable:
Race: Gillum is one of two black candidates for governor in the South, and his race immediately became an issue in the campaign. Two days after both won their respective party’s nomination, DeSantis said Florida didn’t need to “monkey this up” by embracing Gillum’s campaign, choosing a phrase fraught with racial history. The DeSantis campaign has had other issues involving race arise. A white supremacist group left racist robo-calls this week on black Democratic Party leaders' phones. Gillum, meanwhile, has leaned into the racial contrast between him and DeSantis.
"The same part of this country that was built by people of color may soon be led by people of color,” he told The Post’s Vanessa Williams. “That, in the shadow of Donald Trump in Washington, would be poetic justice in this country.”
And in a Wednesday night debate, Gillum tied it all together plainly: “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
A referendum on President Trump: DeSantis has embraced the president perhaps more than any other major party candidate for governor this year. Republican operatives watching the race in Washington were fine with that when their data showed Trump’s approval rating was in the 50s. But there is evidence the president’s popularity in this swing state could be slipping. A Quinnipiac University poll out last week had more Florida voters disapproving of the president than approving of him.
But Gillum has said Trump should be impeached, a statement Republicans hope is a step too far for most Florida voters.
Corruption: Gillum is the mayor of Tallahassee, whose city government is under FBI scrutiny for corruption. Gillum has said it involves the city, not him, but DeSantis got traction this week for highlighting that Gillum appeared to have accepted a “Hamilton” ticket from an undercover FBI agent. There is just enough smoke there that it could cost Gillum some conservative Democratic votes, MacManus predicts.
Ideological extremes: From immigration to health care, DeSantis and Gillum couldn’t be further apart on policy. DeSantis filmed an ad with his toddler daughter building a border wall with blocks, while Gillum thinks the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be abolished “in all forms.”
How these two extremes play out in a swing state, where the past two presidential and gubernatorial elections have been decided by a percentage point, is a wild card. Operatives on both sides argue that the other candidate’s positions are less tenable to the general public — but that’s just theory. Just 27 percent of Florida voters (the total amount who voted in the primaries) chose these two candidates.
Hurricane Michael: The deadly hurricane, which made landfall earlier this month in the Florida Panhandle, devastated one of the most reliably Republican, reliably high turnout areas in the state. “I don’t think those people will be going to vote,” MacManus said.
The Senate race: Most operatives think the governor’s race is the big draw in Florida. “Gillum and DeSantis are such big personalities,” said one Democrat in Washington following the race. But it can’t be overlooked that the governor of Florida, Republican Rick Scott, is running for Senate and spending millions of his own money trying to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Nelson is leading in polls, just like Gillum. Democrats battling competitive House races also feel confident their party has momentum in the state. And they credit Gillum at the top of the ticket for that.
Both candidates' ability to turn out voters: Gillum may be the more dynamic candidate, but he is banking his election on high-risk voters, like millennials and Latinos, who aren’t great about actually voting. Meanwhile, MacManus says DeSantis isn’t well liked in some of the more traditional corners of the Republican Party. But he could benefit from two last-minute news stories that may rally conservative voters: The battle to get Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court and a caravan of migrants in Mexico seeking asylum at the U.S. border.
The general nasty tone: The candidates had their final debate Wednesday night, and it was as down-in-the-dirt as you can get. As The Post’s Tim Craig reports, DeSantis repeatedly suggested Gillum would allow child molesters to roam about freely. Gillum accused DeSantis of being supported by neo-Nazis.
MacManus said the gutter-like rhetoric reflects just how much both sides have on the line in Florida’s governor’s race. And while Gillum has the potential to make history by winning, this race is also impossible to predict.