More than 15 months ago, our op-ed “Who will be Florida’s next governor? The outsider — experience is for losers” reflected on the lessons learned from the 2016 presidential campaign. We were trying to predict of the outcome of the 2018 governor’s race.
With the results of Tuesday’s primary, how are we doing so far?
We argued that, in 2018, it would not be the candidate with the most money, most experience or slickest commercials who would win their party’s nomination. We said the ultimate nominees would be those who understood how to effectively use social media to disrupt the conventional front-runners and/or the establishment candidates. At the time we wrote the op-ed, conventional wisdom had identified Florida Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam as the presumptive Republican nominee and Gwen Graham as the Democratic favorite.
Both lost on Tuesday, and in shocking fashion.
If anyone was born to be a Florida governor, it was Adam Putnam. First elected to Congress at 22, his family had deep ties to central Florida. Politically, Putnam led a charmed life. He rose quickly in Congressional ranks, then served two terms as the state’s agriculture commissioner. He was widely respected in Republican circles. In short, he was a classic, traditional and establishment-credentialed prototypical candidate. His massive fundraising of over $40 million reflected the Republican establishment’s deep affection for him.
However, Congressman Ron DeSantis, little known and only in Congress for a few years, blew out Putnam by more than 20 percentage points. Putnam’s massive fund-raising advantage was no match for a few tweets from President Trump’s social-media account, with its 54 million followers. While Putnam touted his endorsements from Florida’s law enforcement organizations as any statewide candidate naturally would, DeSantis trumped those with endorsements from Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham on the Fox News Channel, which proved to be much more valuable in the primary.
On the Democratic side, Gwen Graham is the daughter of a beloved former governor and an ideal candidate in her own right. Additionally, former Miami Beach Philip Levine ran a strategic and well-funded campaign. But Andrew Gillum dominated social media, and it wasn’t only because Bernie Sanders endorsed him. Gillum advocated progressive ideas that energized the Democratic base.
The Democrats’ primary also underscores the importance of South Florida in winning the state. It is stunning to consider that Tallahassee Mayor Gillum won Miami-Dade County where both Graham and Levine have deep roots. Many Democrats have believed that elections are won and lost in the I-4 corridor. Tuesday night’s results laid waste to that assumption. The lesson: If your campaign ignores South Florida, you do so at your own peril. Gillum is the Democratic nominee because he had a surprisingly good broad swath of support in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
One message was very clear from Florida’s Republican and Democrat primary voters: The party establishments no longer decide the parties’ nominees, we do!” Voters in both parties feel betrayed by the old-line leaders. There will be no more legacy candidates, no more establishment coattails. If Florida is an indicator, Tuesday’s results demonstrated that that the parties’ voters are not interested in middle-of-the-road candidates. That’s gone, for now, and might not come back.
In DeSantis vs. Gillum we have something we have not seen in Florida politics before. This election is an epic clash of the hardcore Republican base against the progressive base of the Democratic Party. The Democrats most recent gubernatorial candidates, all of whom have lost, were moderates from Central Florida: Jim Davis, Alex Sink and Charlie Crist.
Tuesday night, Republican insiders were thinking DeSantis was a lock, but by Wednesday morning everyone realized this race is a jump ball. Florida is America’s bellwether swing state and sends a powerful message about 2020. The Republicans are the Party of Trump. If Gillum wins, it will send a blast of energy through the most progressive wing of the Democratic party as a prelude to the Democrats’ 2020 presidential primary battle.
Undoubtedly, Florida’s voters will set the direction for the country this November with their choice.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party. A former state legislator and, currently, a policy advosor to Ballard Partners. Justin Sayfie is a partner at Ballard Partners, publisher of SayfieReview.com and former spokesman for former Gov. Jeb Bush.