Florida made history this week, with Democratic voters backing Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum to become the first African-American nominated by a major party to run for governor.

And Democrats and Republicans are opening a new chapter in gubernatorial politics by nominating candidates who have their strongest support in the extreme wings of their parties.

The Republican nomination of Ron DeSantis, who was endorsed by President Donald Trump and is one of the most conservative members of Congress, may be less of an ideological shift in a party that has advanced hardline conservatives before, including when Rick Scott was elected governor in 2010.

But the Democratic nomination of Gillum, who embraced the progressive wing of his party and won the support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, is a sea change in a party that has nominated a series of centrist candidates but hasn’t won a governor’s race since 1994.

The prime casualty of the strategic shift was former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee. Ironically, it was Graham’s father, Bob Graham, a former governor and U.S. senator, who was one of the leaders in a national movement that began in the 1980s with the goal of shifting the Democratic Party back to a more centrist position.

The leaders of the movement formed a group, called the Democratic Leadership Council, and claimed success with the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, who served two terms as president.

But the Democratic Leadership Council’s star began to fade by the 2000s, with the group formally dissolving in 2011.

In Florida, Democrats nominated a string of centrist candidates for governor, including former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, another DLC leader while he was in Congress. MacKay lost to Jeb Bush in the 1998 governor’s race.

But Gillum’s nomination is a clear break in that strategy. And the Nov. 6 general election will be the first test of whether a more progressive Democrat can win the governor’s race and break a nearly a quarter-century losing streak for the party.

MAKING HISTORY

In what could be one of the biggest upsets in recent political history in Florida, Gillum, 39, captured nearly 34.4 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary, compared to Gwen Graham’s 31.25 percent.

A crowd of supporters assembled at The Hotel Duval in Tallahassee was exuberant as results showed Gillum slowly making gains on Graham throughout the evening, chanting “Bring it home” and “I believe we will win.”

The race “is not about me,” Gillum told the ecstatic crowd.

“It never has been, and it never will be. This race is about every last single one of us,” he said. “Those of us inside this room. Those outside of this room. Those who voted for me. Those who didn’t vote at all. And those who didn’t vote for me because they are Republicans. But I want to be their governor, too.”

Gillum has long been considered a rising star in the Florida Democratic Party but trailed in the polls in a crowded primary that featured Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King and Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene.

But Gillum’s campaign gained momentum after picking up endorsements from the progressive icon Sanders and financial backing from billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros.

“I sincerely believe that what is going to deliver us to victory in November is the fact that there are every-day, hard-working people in this state who believe that they deserve a voice in our government too. We are going to give it to them,” Gillum said Tuesday night.

At a concert venue in downtown Orlando, hundreds of Graham supporters appeared stunned by the election results as it became clear that Gillum had bested Graham, who was long considered the frontrunner in the race.

“I was expecting to give a much different speech tonight,” she said.

Graham urged her supporters to “put all of our efforts behind” behind Gillum’s campaign.

“This election is about the future of Florida,” she said, reiterating a campaign theme. “That’s what we were fighting for. It was never about the candidate.”

‘THANK YOU, MR. PRESIDENT’

With the enthusiastic backing of Trump, DeSantis handily defeated Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the Republican primary.

DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach, got 56.5 percent of the vote and a congratulatory phone call from the president.

“I want to thank him for viewing me as someone who could be a great leader for Florida,” DeSantis told the crowd gathered at his election-night viewing party in Orlando. “So, thank you Mr. President.”

The double-digit victory was an electoral exclamation point for DeSantis, 39, who began the campaign as a little-known congressman facing a veteran politician who had the backing of most of the Tallahassee Republican establishment.

DeSantis, who has been one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in Congress, had the ultimate asset in the president’s support. It began in a series of favorable presidential tweets and reached a crescendo in a July 31 rally in Tampa where Trump gave DeSantis an in-person endorsement.

A Harvard-educated lawyer and Iraq war veteran, DeSantis melded Trump’s support with frequent appearances on the Fox News network, where his campaign strategists astutely projected he could raise his profile among GOP voters despite Putnam’s early advantages in the race.

DeSantis’ victory derailed Putnam’s storied political journey, which began when he was elected as a 22-year-old to the Florida House of Representatives in 1996. Putnam also served 10 years in Congress before winning two four-year terms on the Florida Cabinet as the commissioner of agriculture.

But at age 44, Putnam has plenty of time to resurrect his political career.

BATTLE FOR THE BASE

While Gillum hopes to make history as the Sunshine State’s first black governor, DeSantis is trying to parlay his support from Trump into a gubernatorial win.

But the question remains whether either candidate can translate his primary election victory into a November triumph.

“What you’ve got is the ultimate base-turnout election on both sides. Ron DeSantis isn’t going to reach a bunch of moderates in the middle, and neither is Andrew Gillum. These are two guys who represent the absolute edge of their parties,” GOP consultant Rick Wilson, the author of the book “Everything Trump Touches Dies,” told The News Service of Florida.

The outcome of the governor’s race in November “is going to show us the heart of Florida,” said Allison Tant, a former chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party who is backing Gillum.

CABINET CONTESTS LOCKED IN

Former Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ashley Moody, who had to counter attacks by her primary opponent about being registered in the past as a Democrat, advanced Tuesday as the Republican nominee for attorney general.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa won the Democratic nomination as he continues his bid to become the state’s first African-American attorney general.

Moody and Shaw will face off in November with Jeff Siskind, an attorney from Wellington running without a party affiliation, to replace term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In the race for agriculture commissioner, state Rep. Matt Caldwell topped a four-way Republican primary, while lawyer and medical-marijuana lobbyist Nikki Fried had an easier time emerging from a field of three Democrats to become her party’s nominee for the Cabinet post.

The two will now go head-to-head in November to replace Putnam.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida Democratic primary voters backed Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, making him the first African-American candidate nominated by a major party in a gubernatorial race.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Let’s build off the success we’ve had under Gov. Scott. 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 the state.”  — Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis in a Fox News interview. His use of the word “monkey” drew charges of racism from Democrats. DeSantis’ campaign said his remark was aimed at Gillum’s policies and had nothing to do with race.


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