Ron DeSantis, a three-term Republican congressman backed by President Donald Trump, will face Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a progressive black Democrat, in a nationally-watched November general election that will test the president’s influence.
Republican primary voters overwhelmingly supported DeSantis in Tuesday’s election over Adam Putnam, a 20-year political veteran once considered the front-runner until Trump interjected.
Democrats backed Gillum, who received the support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and other progressives across the country despite the shadow cast over his administration by a federal investigation.
With the race called for DeSantis minutes after polls closed, Putnam addressed supporters just before 8:20 p.m.
“When one door closes another one opens,” Putnam said. “Let’s not dwell on the closed one tonight but instead on putting Florida first.”
While Florida Republicans handed Trump a victory by nominating his pick U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the biggest upset of the night was Democrats electing Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is the state’s first African-American party nominee.
The 39-year-old was the only candidate in the five-person Democratic primary to repeatedly call for Trump’s impeachment, an attack that is likely to set an early tone to the general election race against DeSantis, who’s gubernatorial bid has so far been based on a platform built by Trump’s endorsement.
Gillum’s neck-to-neck surprise victory over former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who was the first Democrat to jump in the race and early on was considered the front-runner, shocked the political world—and even some of his supporters.
“If you had told me six months ago that we would be here right now, I would not have believed it,” said Tallahassee City Commissioner Curtis Richardson.
What catapulted him to the top toward the end of the race was the endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who first tweeted his support for the underdog candidate and then rallied alongside him in Tampa and Orlando.
“To make sure Florida moves in a different direction—a progressive direction—we need to make him the next governor in the state,” Sanders told Floridians a couple of week before the primary election.
DeSantis stands opposite to that ideology. As he took the stage in an Orlando hotel conference room, he made sure to thank Trump for his support as well as the crew of celebrities that helped him on the campaign trail like Fox News political commentator Sean Hannity.
In the crowded Democratic primary for governor, voters also considered former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who was considered the early front-runner; former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine; Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene; and Orlando businessman Chris King.
Graham, who represented a conservative north Florida district in Congress, had been in the race the longest, and early on was considered the front-runner. That status was challenged over the summer by Levine, who used nearly $27 million of his personal money to swamp Florida’s 10 expensive media markets starting in November, far earlier than any other candidate on TV.
The 55-year-old’s primary rivals have poked holes in her congressional voting record and criticized her for being too conservative and not progressive enough to be the Democratic nominee.
While in Congress, for example, Graham voted for the Keystone XL pipeline and her primary foes have attacked her for not voting often enough with President Barack Obama . She also has been hit for denying taking political contributions from the sugar industry, which is a central focus for many Florida voters concerned about toxic algae.
As her male opponents attacked her in debates, Graham coined the phrase “Gwen and the men” in the race.
Graham and Levine later were challenged with the entrance in the race of Greene, a brash Democrat who made a failed U.S. Senate bid in 2010. He quickly spent $37 million from his own wealth for television ads, a move that cut into voters supporting Levine, and again gave Graham her front-runner status.
Greene and Levine are both wealthy South Florida Jewish candidates, and from the first moment Greene entered the race, most observers believed he and Levine would fight for the same pool of voters.
Greene attacked Levine in television ads, most notably one called “Levine Latrine” which used stock video footage from other countries in an attempt to poke holes on the former mayor’s environmental record.
Greene’s campaign, though, unexpectedly pulled nearly all of his television ads last week, which was viewed as a white flag. Across the vast state of Florida, it’s important to be on TV to reach voters in the final days of the campaign. Greene also canceled his election night party, another sign he didn’t see the likelihood of a win.
Gillum has been perceived as the most progressive Democrat in the race. The 39-year-old had the backing of longtime national Democratic donors Tom Steyer and George Soros, and a long list of liberal Hollywood celebrities. His campaign has been pushing the message of a late “surge” in recent weeks, but most public polling had him behind the top tier candidates.
For Republicans, the story has been Trump. As soon as he formally endorsed DeSantis, Putnam’s double-digit polling lead and money advantage evaporated. DeSantis became the favorite in the race even though the Iraq war veteran is fairly new to Florida’s political scene.
But not Putnam, whose plans to become Florida’s next governor have been decades in the making.
The 44-year-old started his career as an elected official at the age of 22 as a state House representative. The fifth-generation Floridian then went on to serve five years in Congress representing the Central Florida-based 12th congressional district.
With decades of experience in public office, he came into the governor’s race and quickly out-raised all candidates. But spending nearly $30 million against DeSantis seemed not enough to blunt his rise with the power of Trump. DeSantis only spent $16 million in an eight-month period.
Toward the end of the race, Putnam’s fundraising dried up and money from Florida’s political players shifted to DeSantis. This also came after mistakes made by Putnam’s state agency since 2012 were made public. Some errors that haunted his candidacy included lapses in background checks needed to issue concealed weapon permits.
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