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‘The Obama excitement’: Can Andrew Gillum capture it in Florida?

Supporters cheer for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum last month in Orlando. (John Raoux/AP)

ORLANDO — Salandra Benton used to campaign so hard for Barack Obama that her feet would swell as she walked through nightclubs, hair salons, apartment buildings and church parking lots telling people they had to vote.

After Obama won Florida in 2008 and 2012, Benton hoped to step back from door-to-door campaigning. But then Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum shocked Florida last month by winning the Democratic nomination for governor, with the potential of becoming the state’s first African American chief executive.

Now, Benton has been drawn back into Florida’s political street fight on behalf of Gillum, who faces former congressman Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee, in the Nov. 6 election.

“I think this is even bigger than Obama, because this is even closer to home,” said Benton, 54, a union organizer who is African American. “The Obama excitement was, ‘We are finally going to get a black president.’ But now this is Florida’s son, in a state we feel black men have been attacked and not protected, so we are waking back up.”

Benton’s passion this year reflects a potentially troubling sign for Republicans in Florida as both parties begin pouring resources into the state, for one of the nation’s most closely watched governor’s races as well as a competitive U.S. Senate contest between Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Just a few weeks ago, Republicans were fairly confident they could sweep both races, building off Donald Trump’s 113,000-vote win over Hillary Clinton in Florida in the 2016 presidential contest.

But Democrats hope Gillum’s victory in the Aug. 28 primary gives them a chance to rebuild the coalition that twice lifted Obama to victory in Florida. They will have to do so, however, with only weeks between Gillum’s surprise win and the start of early voting next month.

The Obama coalition was built on African American and Latino voters, who together make up 30 percent of Florida’s electorate, as well as young voters, white Democrats and independents, many of them irregular voters.

It’s the same formula that most successful Democratic candidates need to assemble in Florida, a state that is rapidly growing and diversifying. But Republicans have consistently proved their supporters — older and more white than the state overall — are more motivated to vote, which has contributed to the party’s nearly two-decade grip on the governor’s office.

“The art of this strategy is making sure no voter is left behind,” said Kevin Cate, a consultant for the Gillum campaign who was also a veteran of Obama’s 2008 Florida campaign. “We will be able to compete similar to past statewide winners in this state, which have been few and far between.”

Cate and other Gillum advisers have tried to blunt direct comparisons between their strategy and the one used by Obama. Florida, they note, has been adding almost 1,000 new residents a day, so the electorate has changed significantly since Obama’s past races here.

The Democratic Party, too, has shifted leftward. A key component of Gillum’s coalition, for example, is young supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Many say Obama was too timid in pushing for issues now embraced by Gillum, such as single-payer health care and legalized marijuana.

Gillum also is hoping he can do better among white voters than Obama did in 2012, when he carried 37 percent of the white vote, according to exit polls. The school shooting last year in Parkland, Fla., and concern about the ongoing “red tide” fish kill on the state’s western beaches may be loosening Florida Republicans’ hold on white voters, Democrats say.

“There is a swing-vote population, largely suburban white women in Tampa and Orlando, and I absolutely believe Gillum can do well with those voters,” said Steve Schale, a Florida political strategist who ran Obama’s state effort here in 2012.

But driving up minority turnout is a crucial component of any winning Democratic campaign, and that remains the biggest challenge for a campaign that six weeks ago still had fewer than a dozen paid staffers.

In Florida’s last governor’s race, in 2014, just 41.5 percent of Florida’s 1.8 million registered black residents turned out to vote, according to Daniel A. Smith, chairman of the political-science department at the University of Florida.

Among registered voters, 73 percent of white Floridians voted in 2016, compared with 65 percent of African American voters, according to Smith. Nearly 70,000 African Americans between the ages of 21 and 24 were registered to vote but did not do so in 2016 — a number that represents almost two-thirds of Trump’s victory margin, Smith noted.

In interviews throughout Florida, African American leaders and activists say that for the first time since Obama’s 2012 election, they are not particularly worried a lack of enthusiasm among black voters will be the downfall of the Democratic ticket.

Even before Gillum’s primary win, Florida activists said the state’s black community was more energized than in previous midterm elections, because of a host of local and national issues, including Trump’s battle with National Football League players as well as the state’s controversial “stand your ground” gun law.

“I think people are more aware of how much these races have consequences, and they are not going to deal with those consequences,” said Lydia Hudson, a Tampa resident and head of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, which claims it helped to double black turnout for Gillum during the primary compared with past off-year primary elections.

In the general election, activists say, African American turnout could be further boosted by a measure on the Florida ballot that would restore voting rights for some felons, something activists and church leaders have been aggressively campaigning for since the start of the year.

Smith said “the big question” is whether Gillum can turn out and win over Latino voters, who make up about a quarter of Florida’s population.

Florida’s Latino population is diverse and includes traditionally Republican-leaning Cubans as well as Democratic-leaning voters from South America and the Caribbean, including a rapidly expanding Puerto Rican population in central Florida. Republicans have targeted Puerto Rican residents this year, and their Senate candidate, Scott, has proved popular among Hispanics.

For Democrats, those voters have proved unreliable in off-year elections.

According to Smith, turnout among Florida Latinos dropped from 64 percent in the 2012 presidential election to 31 percent in the 2014 midterm election.

Florida Republicans are also hopeful they can further undercut Gillum’s support among Latinos by labeling him as a “socialist” — an attack that has been debunked by independent fact-checkers but one that the GOP hopes will nonetheless stick with voters who consider their heritage to be from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other countries with a history of socialist-leaning governments.

In recent days, DeSantis, Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) all have accused Gillum of supporting socialist policies, citing his backing for universal health care.

DeSantis selected Florida state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a popular Cuban American from Miami, as his running mate to try to further shore up his support in Democratic-leaning South Florida.

“DeSantis needs to get 40 percent of the vote in Miami-Dade, so he needs to pound the message that Gillum’s policies didn’t work in other parts of the world we fled from,” said Nelson Diaz, a Cuban American who chairs the Miami-Dade Republican Committee. “Gillum is far, far left, and it is already resonating in the Hispanic community.”

But even if DeSantis outperforms other recent statewide candidates in South Florida, Democrats are hoping to boost minority turnout along the Interstate 4 corridor in central Florida, considered the state’s key swing region.

Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Florida, said 30 allied groups will be reaching out to tens of thousands of black and Hispanic voters in 17 central-Florida counties before Election Day. Since Gillum won the primary, Porta said, the number of volunteers showing up to canvass has grown fivefold.

Statewide, the coalition plans to spend $10 million reaching out to 1.25 million black and Hispanic voters, said Josh Geise, Florida director of America Votes, which is coordinating efforts among the groups.

“I can tell you every foot of Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties that is accessible to voter-registration canvassers is being worked,” said Porta, referring to the core counties in the Orlando media market. “I have lived here my entire life, and I have never — and it gives me chills saying this — felt this much energy around a candidate, even Obama.”

But political strategists remain divided over whether Gillum’s targeting of irregular voters will succeed.

Alex Patton, a Republican strategist in Florida, is skeptical Gillum has the time or the money to cobble together an Obama-style turnout operation. And in this era of hyper-partisanship, Patton said, for every new voter Gillum “can activate, you activate one” for the GOP. That was the lesson Clinton learned in 2016, he said, when she spent more than $50 million in the state but was still swamped by Trump-supporting white voters in suburban Tampa and northern Florida.

“In this environment we are in, it’s going to come back to negative partisanship and who are people going to vote against,” Patton said.

But Schale noted that even modest turnout differences among nonwhite and irregular voters in cities such as St. Petersburg or Daytona Beach could be the difference in winning vote-rich Pinellas and Volusia counties. Pinellas, which includes St. Petersburg, supported Trump in 2016 after voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Volusia, which includes Daytona Beach, supported Obama in 2008 but voted Republican in 2012 and 2016.

“Gillum’s opportunity for expansion is neighborhood by neighborhood in a lot of these Republican counties,” said Schale, adding that demographic ­changes over the past decade give Gillum a broader base of minority voters to target than Obama had in 2008.

It is a challenge that is drawing Kristine Brodie back onto the streets. Brodie, a 52-year-old flight attendant, remembers how sunscreen melted from her face and her lips shriveled from thirst as she campaigned for Obama in Florida’s sweltering heat.

Brodie did not vote for Gillum in the primary. But after she heard him speak at an Orlando rally two weeks ago, she decided it was time to start knocking on doors again.

“This reminds me of the same excitement I had for Obama,” said Brodie, who is white. “I’ll go to trailer parks. I’ll go to million-
dollar homes.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.