Adam Putnam faded, Ron DeSantis sauntered. Gwen Graham stumbled, Philip Levine receded, and, in the shocker of Election Night, Andrew Gillum left his better-funded, more familiar opponents in the dust.
It’ll be Republican Congressman DeSantis, a Harvard-educated Navy veteran, and Democrat Gillum, the Miami-born African American-America mayor of Tallahassee, who has a chance to make history — and already has — vying for the Governor’s Mansion in November.
All of these candidates have been elected to office. But in the race for Florida governor, no matter the party, voters made clear that they were tired of the establishment candidates, among them, a former congresswoman and daughter of a still-popular past governor and an agriculture secretary who seems to have had the governnor’s office in his sights since birth. Voters rejected the usual suspects and threw their support behind the unusual ones.
This, of course, was not the case in many other races where, establishment candidates such as Donna Shalala won the Democratic primary to replace U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, by soundly defeating a crowded field of opponents. Shalala now will face Republican winner, Spanish-language television personality, Maria Elvira Salazar — a familiar face in the media, but still another unusual suspect — in November. And every incumbent on the the Miami-Dade County Commission and School Board was returned to office.
But in the gubernatorial primaries, voters went rogue. The winners’ paths to victory were unusual, too. President Trump loomed large in DeSantis’ win — practically guaranteed it. DeSantis, a congressman from the Jacksonville area, was a constant commentator on Fox News. Trump liked his style and, better yet, his unerring support of the president. Trump gave DeSantis high praise last December, and a “full endorsement” in June. Game over. DeSantis stuck to the friendly television media, eschewed editorial board interviews in South Florida — as did Putnam — and won Tuesday night.
Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, didn’t have a similar wind at his back. He had far less money, but the financial backing of wealthy friends George Soros and Tom Steyer. He had the shadow of an FBI investigation at City Hall, but also deep know-how about effective governance, optimism and charisma. He also had better funded, millionaire opponents who, as frontrunners duked it out among themselves, leaving him relatively unsullied.
And where DeSantis had the television airwaves at his disposal, Gillum had social media, and used it exquisitely well.
Voters across the country have been sending the same message. They said it earlier this year when they turned a Democratic incumbent out of the U.S. House in favor of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They said it in Georgia, giving Stacey Abrams a shot at being the state’s first African American governor.
They said it, too, in 2016, and sent Donald Trump to the White House. It’s clear that Trump’s endorsement propelled DeSantis to victory Tuesday. And DeSantis, who Superglued himself to the president and his policies during the primary campaign, no doubt will continue to exploit the connection.
But the governor’ s race can’t be “all Trump, all the time.” Floridians need a Florida-focused leader, and they should demand that DeSantis and Gillum make clear their visions for confronting the challenges they face: the quest for quality education; for affordable healthcare, for action to combat sea-level rise; for a replenished Everglades.
On to November!