Fabiola Santiago

A divided Florida tossed the win to the Trump brand. But Andrew Gillum made history.

Andrew Gillum concedes Florida governor’s race to Ron DeSantis

After a tight race, Andrew Gillum concedes the Florida governor's race to Republican Ron DeSantis.
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After a tight race, Andrew Gillum concedes the Florida governor's race to Republican Ron DeSantis.

An Andrew Gillum win would’ve meant a revolutionary turn for Florida — and it almost happened. Almost.

The Miami-born Tallahassee mayor made history not only by becoming the first African-American in the state nominated for its highest office, but also for winning a primary by embracing an uncompromising progressive agenda. He fired up Democrats and young independents — and lost by the slimmest of margins.

Let those gains be the consolation prize, Democrats. They amount to hope, the most necessary of emotions for the times.

Rejoice, too, in that an important voter rights amendment that disproportionally affected poor African Americans passed with more acceptance than anyone expected. The restoration of voting rights to felons who’ve paid their debt to society wouldn’t have happened without the strong, charismatic Gillum campaign of inclusion — and the record voter turnout it inspired.

That, in Florida, is called progress.

But this state — as culturally diverse and politically complex as it has become — is still the South, with its ghosts, prejudices, and entrenched conservatism. Progressive Democrats are still a new scary thing. This is a state that even when run by Democrats has been ruled by centrist ones like long-time Sen. Bill Nelson, who appears to have lost his seat to Gov. Rick Scott by only 34,435 votes, a result that may head to a recount.

In the anxious end, a divided Florida tossed the two big races to the Trump brand embodied by Scott from conservative Naples and by former congressman Ron DeSantis from conservative Ponte Vedra Beach in the Jacksonville area.

If you know Florida, you suspected this outcome.

One of the wild cards — the idea that growing numbers of liberal Puerto Ricans in Central Florida and younger Cuban-Americans in South Florida could upset three decades of Republican domination — didn’t come to fruition.

Gillum won Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous country, and even the votes of moderate Republicans like Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, but not by the wide margin he obtained in Broward. He needed that to offset the upstate counties that are solid red or mixed.

But both DeSantis and Scott have for years avidly courted Cuban-American conservatives, who reliably turn out to vote like their lives depend on the GOP winning. Putting on his ticket, in a Marco Rubio-inspired move, the respected Cuban-American legislator Jeannette Nuñez certainly helped DeSantis. But it was the scare tactics that Florida would turn into a Venezuela or a Cuba under Gillum that worked best to ensure the GOP Cuban-American base voted early and strong.

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Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, celebrate after winning the Florida Governor’s race at the Rosen Centre in Orlando on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Stephen M. Dowell Orlando Sentinel/TNS

On the Puerto Rican end, Trump’s lackluster response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria didn’t amount to enough of a vote advantage for Gillum or Nelson, while Scott’s presence in the Orlando community, on the island, and assurances that they had his help, undoubtedly set him apart from Trump on that issue. In an emotional speech claiming victory late Tuesday night, Scott almost immediately broke into speaking Spanish, a nod of recognition to his Hispanic supporters.

The lesson here: The North Florida-Miami-Dade conservative coalition remains a force. Statewide, the liberal Puerto Rican-Cuban-American one remains a work in progress.

“We still have to be willing to show up every single day and demand our seat at the table,” Gillum urged supporters in his concession speech. “We gotta be willing inside of elections and outside of elections to say that our voices still matter.”

They matter, they showed up, made some gains, but couldn’t turn Florida blue. As a result, “red tide Rick” and dog-whistle talking DeSantis pulled off slim but big victories — with no mandate.

Only one thing is certain: Like the nation, we’re a state deeply divided. Algae blooms and President Trump have only made it more toxic.

Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago

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