JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As cars clogged the parking lot outside Highlands Public Library, Tony Maxwell was certain his state was on the cusp of electing Florida’s first black governor.
“It’s nice to see black people doing something early,” said Maxwell, 53, an African American retired naval officer, voting two days before Election Day.
Gillum’s candidacy elicited an excitement on Jacksonville’s predominantly black north side that was unseen since the election of Barack Obama as president.
“When we vote, we win,” was one of Gillum’s trademark phrases, and Maxwell and his friends believed it.
They voted. Still, their candidate lost.
Democrats in Florida and Georgia awoke Wednesday feeling a complicated mix of emotions after two rising black political stars and would-be governors appeared to fall painfully short of victory.
That pain was even more acute in African American communities, which sought to show how powerful they could be as a voting bloc in a divisive political period. There was deep disappointment, of course, and in some cases defiance and anger, over racist attacks that targeted both candidates, and, at times, hope that perhaps important lessons were learned for future candidacies.
“He ran a good race, but I don’t think we’ll see the last of him,” Maxwell said Wednesday. “All I can do is continue to push how important it is for young people to vote. We have to get there.”
In some ways, Gillum, 39, the mayor of Tallahassee, and Stacey Abrams, 44, a longtime Georgia state lawmaker, represented two of the Democratic Party’s biggest heartbreaks of Tuesday’s elections.
Both received help from former president Barack Obama and other African American figures in the final days. That support included an Abrams town hall hosted by Oprah Winfrey. The efforts helped spark unusually high turnout — but it wasn’t enough.
Abrams and her supporters were defiant Wednesday, accusing Georgia Republicans of seeking to suppress the black vote.
Her campaign held out hope that ongoing counting of absentee and provisional ballots would narrow the lead of Republican Brian Kemp enough to force a runoff — though by late in the day Wednesday, Kemp still remained above the 50-percent threshold. Kemp, who as secretary of state presides over Georgia’s election system, declared victory late in the day.
Georgia election officials’ actions reflected “either incompetence or corruption or both,” said longtime civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had campaigned for Abrams and Gillum in the closing days of the campaigns. He said it was inexcusable that at several polling sites in Atlanta, including at Morehouse College, not enough machines were provided, resulting in hours-long waits to vote. Jackson said Abrams is right to protest the results.
“There’s nothing honorable about being robbed. It’s not something you do with dignity and compliance,” Jackson said. “When you’re robbed, you should cry out, and she’s crying out, and she deserves support.”
Felicia Davis, an activist in Forest Park, just outside Atlanta, said she was dismayed by the voting problems but took solace in the large turnout by African Americans in Florida and Georgia. She also pointed to the candidacy of Democrat Ben Jealous, a former NAACP leader, who lost his bid for Maryland governor on Tuesday.
“In these two candidates, in Abrams and Gillum, and even Ben Jealous, they are young,” she said. “To come this close, if they stay in, they’re going to be winners.”
Another Abrams supporter, Brandi Underwood, said the candidate deserves a recount, but she felt that regardless of the outcome, the campaign was in some ways a success.
“Even if she loses, it’s like, wow, there is a Democratic presence in Georgia, whether they want to acknowledge it or not,” said Underwood, 30, a stay-at-home mom and communications director for a local church who lives in suburban Augusta.
Gillum’s loss was something of a shock to some. He had been leading Republican Ron DeSantis in several polls, and anticipation was building among liberals nationwide that he would make history in a state that had backed President Trump and had not elected a Democratic governor since 1994. After all, Florida had also backed Obama twice, proof that the state could vote for a black candidate.
Instead, Gillum’s narrow loss prompted soul-searching among Florida Democrats, who wondered whether the candidate might have done more to mobilize voters in liberal South Florida — or if, in his quest to energize the liberal base, he failed to connect with the broader, multiethnic coalition that had lifted Obama.
“We were so close,” said Florida Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, whose district includes the north side of Jacksonville. “What could we have done to drive out more votes? I don’t know. I don’t know what we could have done to make a difference.”
It is also possible, Gibson said, that Gillum’s candidacy had energized voters who were uneasy about having a black governor.
“The coalition that does not vote by race, the one that elected Obama, is not falling apart, but the people who do vote by race is coming out,” she said. “I hate to say that, but that’s what’s happening in this country.”
Even before the polls closed Tuesday, there were small signs that Gillum was not reaching everyone.
Maxwell knocked on the door of his next-door neighbor. He had been badgering the 18-year-old high school dropout to ride with him to the polls. The young man told Maxwell he did not have a state ID and had no intention of getting one.
“Voting doesn’t change anything,” he told Maxwell.
“I don’t know how to get through to him,” Maxwell said afterward.
The Gillum campaign planned to win Florida with a two-pronged strategy. It would harness the energy among black voters about the possibility of a historic election in the urban counties, while gathering support of nonvoters and conservatives who are uneasy with the negative tone and divisions in politics.
On the day before the election, Gillum’s campaign bus skipped the liberal bastions in South Florida and rolled past the Old Country Store and Hickory Hill Auctions in rural Madison County, where Trump got 57 percent of the vote in 2016. Fifty-nine percent of county residents are white, according to census data, and 40 percent are black.
An overwhelmingly African American crowd of hundreds waited in a pavilion that evening to see Gillum. The local Democratic Party fired up the grill and made hamburgers. “An-Drew! An-Drew! An-Drew!” voters shouted as their children climbed on a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers.
“No one ever thinks about coming to a place like this and asking us to vote,” said Mary Ealy Stephens, 62, a registered nurse, who is black. “So it shows that he knows our lives matter.”
Gillum barely mentioned possibly being the state’s first black governor — the “obvious history,” he called it — and noted that one of his last stops in the campaign was before a memorial to those who fought in the Civil War on the side of states that owned slaves.
“How poetic is that?” he said.
Courtney Cooper, 36, was the type of resident whom the Gillum campaign hoped to attract: an independent Trump voter who has grown concerned about the president’s bullying tone.
But she ended up voting for DeSantis, partially because she wanted to see an end to racial divisions. In Cooper’s eyes, tensions between races in Madison only worsened after Obama’s election in 2008. Black neighbors just started seeing everything differently, she said. They seemed consumed with Obama as the first black president and less concerned about how he was affecting the economy in Florida.
“That trickled down to everything,” Cooper said. “Now everyone is so worried about the other race.” She said she felt that a vote for Gillum, who had accused DeSantis of using a racist slur after he warned Florida voters on TV not to “monkey up” the state, would worsen those tensions.
Back on the north side of Jacksonville, Bridget Waters and a friend sat outside Waters’s home, where Waters said she was relieved that the voting was over.
“I threw out a garbage bag full of mail about the election,” she said. “People had been chasing me on my phone for weeks.”
The hectoring worked: She voted in her first midterm election in more than a decade. She acknowledged that she didn’t know much about Gillum but cited two major factors in her support for him.
“I knew he was black,” she said. “I also knew I didn’t like Trump, and Republicans have to be stopped. They are trying to take away food stamps and my disability. How will I eat?”
As Waters spoke, her friend, Ieisha Rogers, 40, fiddled on her cellphone.
“I stay out of politics,” Rogers said. “Nothing ever changes.”
“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” Waters said. “They say voting changes things.”
“I can’t, anyway, because I’m a felon,” Rogers responded.
Waters also then told her about the amendment to return voting rights to those with criminal records. Rogers put down her phone.
“Really?” she said. “That might change my mind.”