TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Voters are deciding whether to keep Florida under Republican control with a close Trump ally or elect its first Democratic governor since 1994 — and the first African-American ever — after a campaign marked by a deadly hurricane and gun violence.
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis is hoping to ride President Donald Trump’s backing to victory in the governor’s race Tuesday, while Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has sought to energize his party’s voters as an unabashed liberal.
Gillum’s path to the nomination was a surprise, winning against four better-funded challengers. Hurricane Michael pulled him off the campaign trail in early October when it left nearly all of Florida’s capital without power. He again rushed home Friday, canceling campaign events, after a man shot six people at a yoga studio, killing two before taking his own life.
DeSantis won the primary against better-known and better-funded Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam based largely on Trump’s endorsement. Trump visited Florida twice in the final six days of the general election to try to boost turnout.
Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis is one of the reasons why Anjenys Gonzalez voted for Gillum. The 43-year-old Democrat from Miami-Dade County said protecting people’s civil rights is her most important issue.
“(Gillum) actually has a platform that addresses the matter. The other candidate erodes our civil rights issues,” she said. “I think (Trump’s) administration has done the exact opposite of upholding our democracy, so anybody he’s endorsing clearly is in line with his policies.”
In Little Havana, 34-year-old Enrique Tarrio says he chose DeSantis because the businesses he owns have flourished under Republican Gov. Rick Scott. He says DeSantis is “picking up where Rick Scott left off.”
Tarrio said he worries about Gillum’s proposed corporate tax hike.
“I think if taxes get raised, that’s one less person that I can hire,” he explained. “That’s one less person that I can go ahead and help.”
In Miami Beach, Greg Freeman was among the first in line to cast a ballot for Gillum as the polls opened Tuesday morning. He took a red-eye flight from the West Coast to vote, and cited health care as a major issue because he has a pre-existing condition and has already seen insurance premiums sky-rocket.
“I don’t want to be in a high-risk pool,” he said.
More than 5.1 million Floridians had already voted before Election Day. And the election — expected to be close — has the potential to shake up the political landscape in the third largest state in the country.
Republicans over the past 20 years have created and expanded school vouchers, passed restrictions to abortion, turned away money to expand Medicaid and pushed through the nation’s first “stand your ground” law to give immunity to people who use deadly force if they feel threatened.
The last time Democrats won a Florida governor race was Lawton Chiles’ re-election in 1994. Jeb Bush won in 1998, and Republicans since then have had full control of the governor’s office and Legislature. But the past two elections have been close. Republican Gov. Rick Scott won both with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Scott couldn’t run for re-election because of term limits and is instead challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in one of the most closely watched Senate races. If Nelson loses, regaining control of the Senate will be extremely difficult for Democrats.
DeSantis, 40, was educated at Yale and Harvard universities before becoming a Navy officer. He won his House seat in 2012 running as a political outsider, but he clearly had larger ambitions. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, dropping out when Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio decided to seek re-election.
“We need to protect the economic momentum that we have under Gov. Scott and under President Trump. I will keep it going and I will build on that success,” DeSantis said in the closing days of the campaign.
Gillum, 39, was a 23-year-old Florida A&M University student when he became the youngest person elected to Tallahassee’s city council. He was elected the city’s mayor in 2014. He tells a story about a poor upbringing in Miami, and the lessons he learned about getting a good education from his mother and grandmother.
“We’ve got to work to build the kind of economy where people can work one job instead of two and three jobs to make ends meet,” Gillum said at a campaign rally the day before the election.
The mayor has been hampered by allegations of corruption based on an FBI investigation into Tallahassee City Hall, though Gillum has said he’s not a target of the probe.
The winner could play a major role in the 2020 presidential election. Florida is the largest state that can swing either way in a presidential election. DeSantis could have a chance to return a favor for Trump, or Gillum could help boost the Democrats’ nominee to challenge him.
The winner will also shape the state Supreme Court for years to come. Three justice seen as liberal will retire on the same day the governor is sworn in. DeSantis could have the chance to reshape a court that’s frustrated Republicans on rulings ranging from abortion restrictions to the death penalty, or Gillum can ensure the court remains more liberal.