Sizing Up the Florida Governor Race
The Florida gubernatorial race started out as a sleepy event. Most analysts assumed that we would see a matchup between two establishment candidates: Adam Putnam on the Republican side and Gwen Graham on the Democratic side. Putnam was a moderate Republican during his five terms in the House: DW-NOMINATE (a standard measurement of ideology based on votes cast in the chamber) placed 150 House Republicans to his right in the 2005-06 term.
Graham was cast from a similar mold. She won an upset victory in 2014 against an unpopular Republican incumbent in an ancestrally Democratic district in northern Florida. Her DW-NOMINATE score is to the left of center, but only slightly so; 13 Democrats were to her right in the sole Congress in which she served (before she was redistricted out of her district). More importantly, she is the daughter of former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham, who was a popular figure in state politics for decades.
This matchup would have been consistent with how gubernatorial races in Florida have been run in the past. Think of the previous Republican nominees over the past two decades: Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist, Rick Scott. Scott was the most substantial deviation from the “moderate” Republican mold, but he nevertheless worked to smooth his ideological edges. The Democrats’ nominees follow in a similar fashion. Lawton Chiles, Buddy MacKay, Bill McBride, Jim Davis, Alex Sink, and then Crist all fall into the same “bucket” of moderate-to-liberal business-friendly Democrats, albeit to varying degrees.
This had implications for the coalitions that the parties built in the state. Democrats kept races close by minimizing their losses among conservative whites in northern Florida, running up the vote among African-American community (which is relatively small for a Southern state), and utilizing their business-friendly approach and moderately liberal stance on social issues to make inroads among suburban voters and retirees. Republicans took a similar approach, with the states’ Hispanic population standing in for African-Americans.
But this year, the parties threw their playbooks out the window. Republicans nominated Rep. Ron DeSantis, who represents the eastern coast north of Cape Canaveral. DeSantis has an impressive background as a JAG adviser to a Navy SEAL commander in Iraq and a Harvard Law grad. He is also unabashedly conservative. His voting record places him among the 30 most conservative Republicans in the House, and he has thoroughly embraced Donald Trump, including the president’s charge that the FBI planted a spy in his campaign.
Against someone like Graham, in a year like this, it would be very difficult for DeSantis to win. Graham likely retains at least some residual goodwill among northern Floridians and would be poised to run up the score in the suburban areas of Florida. But Democrats instead nominated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. Gillum, who is African-American, was endorsed by Bernie Sanders in the primary and is firmly in the left wing of his party. Gillum endorsed Sanders’ Medicare-for-all proposal, supports a repeal of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, has called for the impeachment of Trump, and favors abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many of those positions involve federal laws over which Gillum would have minimal input, but they give a flavor for his ideological positioning.
This scrambles the coalitions in unpredictable ways. Gillum will likely benefit from enhanced African-American turnout, although it isn’t clear that Kendrick Meek’s historic candidacy for the Senate in 2010 resulted in substantially higher black turnout. At the same time, however poorly one believes Graham would have run in northern Florida, it seems a safe bet that Gillum will run worse.
As for the rest of the state, it is something of the immovable object against the irresistible force. Gillum’s ideas will be tough sells in the suburbs of a state with no income tax; in fact, his stance on guns and stand-your-ground laws may energize otherwise apathetic Trump voters, and his youthful energy may rankle older Florida voters (of which there are many). The endorsement by Sanders will be problematic in some Hispanic communities, many of whom came to the country fleeing socialist regimes (DeSantis’ opening salvo that Gillum wants to turn the state into Venezuela is directly targeted at immigrants from that country.) Hovering above all of this is an FBI investigation into Tallahassee city government, which hasn’t implicated Gillum but is nevertheless a potentially potent campaign tool.
At the same time, DeSantis’ embrace of Trump is unlikely to play terribly well with Hispanic voters. His hard-edged conservatism could prove problematic in the suburbs, while DeSantis’ support for entitlement cuts could turn off seniors. And Gillum’s race is a two-edged sword for his opponent, who will have to walk a fine line to avoid further firing up African-American support, something he seems disinclined to do.
It’s tempting to throw one’s hands up and say that neither candidate is electable, but that in a national environment such as this one, we have to give the edge to Gillum. This seems to be consistent with the polling. At the same time, the race is close, and a slight improvement in the national environment would probably push DeSantis over the top.
Regardless, this race has obvious implications for 2020. Trump won the state narrowly in 2016, and flipping it is probably key to Democrats’ hopes for regaining the White House in 2020. At the same time, Democrats are under tremendous pressure to move leftward from their base. If Gillum wins, this will probably be seen as validation that a more openly liberal, or even socialist, candidate could carry the state against Trump. If Gillum loses, however, it could tamp down on such speculation.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that DeSantis is a former Navy SEAL.