TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Racism immediately became an issue in the Florida governor’s race on Wednesday as both nominees made predictions: The Democrat said voters aren’t looking for a misogynist, racist or bigot, while the Republican said voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” by choosing his African-American opponent.
Only hours after their primary election victories, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis made it clear the race is going to be a nasty contest between two candidates who couldn’t be more opposed politically.
Asked if he’s afraid of President Donald Trump’s support for DeSantis, Gillum told CNN that his race is about uniting the state.
“I actually believe that Florida and its rich diversity are going to be looking for a governor who’s going to bring us together, not divide us. Not misogynist, not racist, not bigots, they’re going to be looking for a governor who is going to appeal to our higher aspirations as a state, “Gillum said. “DeSantis can do the bidding of big business and big lobbyists and Donald Trump and his divisive rhetoric.”
Meanwhile, on Fox News, DeSantis called Gillum an “articulate” candidate, but said “the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting this state. That is not going to work. It’s not going to be good for Florida.”
Uh Ron DeSantis just said FL shouldn't "monkey this up" by electing Andrew Gillum pic.twitter.com/nDPp3Hx7zc
— Steve Morris (@stevemorris__) August 29, 2018
The Florida Democratic Party immediately decried DeSantis’ comment as racist.
“It’s disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles,” said party Chairwoman Terry Rizzo in a statement emailed to reporters.
The DeSantis campaign clarified in an email that his comments were directed at Gillum’s policies, not the candidate himself. “To characterize it as anything else is absurd,” his spokesman Stephen Lawson said.
DeSantis came from behind with the help of Trump to beat Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who campaigned longer, raised more money and built the support of the party establishment.
Gillum upset a field of five that included former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who was hoping to become the state’s first female governor and win the office once held by her father, Bob Graham.
Gillum spent the least of the major candidates and barely mounted a television campaign, but he won the hearts of people who consider themselves progressives, and was given a late boost by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
They’re competing for the office held by Rick Scott, who can’t run for re-election because of term limits and is instead challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. After an easy win in Tuesday’s GOP primary, Scott now joins a bitter — and expensive — showdown with Nelson that could play a decisive role in determining whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate.
The governor’s race, in a state sure to be a battleground in the 2020 presidential election, will essentially be a referendum on Trump.
“We’re going to make clear to the rest of the world that the dark days that we’ve been under coming out of Washington, that the derision and the division that have been coming out of our White House, that right here in the state of Florida that we are going to remind this nation of what is truly the American way,” Gillum told his cheering supporters.
DeSantis also came out fighting, criticizing Gillum as “way, way, way too liberal for the state of Florida.”
“That is not what Floridians want,” DeSantis told reporters. “I think it’s going to be a great contrast and we will make sure we take it to him.”
DeSantis based nearly his entire campaign around the president, and acknowledged after the victory that Trump’s endorsement was the key.
“With one tweet, that kind of put me on the map,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis, who turns 40 next month, is a former Navy lawyer who won his seat in 2012 running as a Washington outsider. He ran for Senate in 2016 but dropped out when Republican Sen. Marco Rubio shut down his presidential campaign and ran for re-election. He entered the race a month after Trump’s December tweet that he would make “a GREAT governor.” Later Trump held a rally for him in Tampa.
Suddenly, he was considered the favorite over Putnam, who seemingly spent his entire adult life building toward the run for governor.
DeSantis’ television ads were Trump-focused, including one where his toddler stacks bricks while DeSantis exclaims, “Build the wall!”
Gillum, meanwhile, relied on a grassroots campaign in the big-money Democratic primary. Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine poured $29 million of his personal wealth into the race and saturated the state with 30 different campaign ads. Billionaire Jeff Greene spent about $38 million of his own money. Orlando-area businessman Chris King also ran, and finished last.
Gillum was a 23-year-old Florida A&M student when he became the youngest person elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003. He was elected mayor in 2014. He’s a gifted public speaker who did well in debates, often receiving the most applause, but the FBI is investigating Tallahassee city hall for corruption. Gillum has said he’s not a target.
Their policy differences are pronounced: DeSantis is pro-gun, and anti-tax; Gillum boasts about beating the National Rifle Association in a lawsuit and is calling for an increase in corporate taxes.
Gillum didn’t make race an issue during the primary. But he acknowledged in a recent interview that it would be “big” to be Florida’s first black governor.
“I have been really slow to try to think on it because it’s too big,” he said. “There will absolutely be a part of this that I can’t even put words to around what it might mean for my children and other people’s kids. Especially growing up for them in the age of Donald Trump.”
AP reporters Joe Reedy, Tamara Lush in Orlando, Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.