By Hastings Wyman –
Three Southern governor’s races will command national attention in November, in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. In the Sunshine State, can the GOP maintain its hold on the top spot in Tallahassee? In the Peach State, will Deep South voters elect their first African-American and first woman governor? And in the Volunteer State, can Democrats manage to recover the governorship and move the state back toward a more moderate role in national politics?
A major question is whether President Trump, who continues to command a strong base in the region, can turn out his loyal supporters to help his party. On the other side of the same coin is whether the backlash against Trump and his iconoclastic style will bring out voters concerned about a number of controversial cultural issues, from abortion to gun control.
Here is how these three races look for now, with the latest polling and money numbers.
Florida. The Sunshine State doesn’t hold its primaries until August 28 and there are spirited contests in both parties to succeed Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is term-limited and running for the US Senate. On the Republican side, Trump-endorsed US Rep. Ron DeSantis is leading with 39% in the latest Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of recent polls. Early favorite Adam Putnam, the state Commissioner of Agriculture, is second with 28%; four other candidates each have 2% or less. Also relevant, says Dr. Susan MacManus, political science professor Emerita at the University of South Florida, “Trump is very popular” in Florida.
As of July 27, Putnam had raised $36.8 million, with $7.3 million cash-on-hand. DeSantis, who entered the race later, had raised $15 million, with $4.2 million on hand. Both candidates are now spending money on television.
On the Democratic side, former US Rep. Gwen Graham leads with 23% in the RCP average, with 18% for former Miami-Dade Mayor Philip Levine, 12% for Palm Beach gazillionaire Jeff Greene, a late but strong entrant into the race, 9% for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and 6% for Orlando lawyer/businessman Chris King. Although faring poorly in the polls, Gillum has some high-profile support, including an endorsement from Bernie Sanders and financial contributions from leftwing billionaire George Soros.
In the money chase, Greene spent $13 million of his own money in the first seven weeks of his campaign and has said he will “spend what it takes.” He has indicated he could spend $100 million to $200 million. Levine, rich but not as rich, donated $9.2 million to his own campaign and can donate more.
Greene “is surging,” says MacManus, who points out that he showed his political stripes when he joined activists protesting the President’s appearance last week in Tampa.
MacManus notes that Greene has more money than Levine. “Greene and Levine are both Jewish, both have more money,” says MacManus. “They are splitting the South Florida vote.”
Graham had raised nearly $8.5 million by the end of June, with some $5.5 million on hand. She has since raised more and her war chest has more than 35,000 individual contributors, including her parents, former Gov. Bob Graham and Adele Graham, who gave her $250,000. She also received support from Emily’s List, to the tune of $470,000.
“The speculation is that Graham would beat DeSantis,” says MacManus. A mid-July Gravis polls showed Graham leading DeSantis by 40% to 38%, but Putnam leading Graham by 40% to 39%. But there is also speculation that the two weaker candidates, DeSantis for the Republicans and Greene for the Democrats, could end up with their party’s nomination. In any case, concludes MacManus, “We are headed toward another 1% race in Florida.”
In Georgia, in the Republican runoff, Secretary of State Brian Kemp sailed past early favorite Casey Cagle, the state’s lieutenant governor. The vote was 69% for Kemp to 30% for Cagle. Kemp benefitted big time by an endorsement from President Trump. Kemp will now face Democratic former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams in November. Cagle appeared at a post-runoff GOP unity rally and gave Kemp a strong endorsement.
The latest poll, taken by Survey USA for WXIA on July 15, showed Kemp with a very slim margin, 46% to 44% for Abrams. The surprisingly strong number for Abrams could either reflect anger among Republicans disaffected by Kemp’s hard-right campaign, or a recent history of Democrats polling better in pre-election surveys than at the ballot box – a pattern apparent in the 2014 governor’s race and again in the 2016 special election in the 6th District. One Peach State observer believes Abrams’ 44% represents the Democratic base.
Support for the two candidates divides geographically. In the May primary, 55% of Metro Atlanta voters (29 counties) chose a Democratic ballot, while in the rest of the state (130 counties), 61% chose a Republican ballot. The GOP won 120 counties, some rural ones by as much as 9-to-1. So the November result will turn on whether Abrams’ urban vote will outpoll Kemp’s rural support.
Tennessee. In the August 2 primaries, Bill Lee, a Franklin businessman (plumbing, HVAC – heating, ventilation and air conditioning), rode a late-campaign surge to victory in the Republican gubernatorial contest for an open seat. Lee had 37%, Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd had 24%, US Rep. Diane Black 23% and state House Speaker Beth Harwell 15%. Lee will face former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who garnered a solid 75% to 19% for state House Minority leader Craig Fitzhugh and 5% for medical marijuana advocate Mezianne Payne.
Reflecting the relative strength of the two parties, 733,743 voters chose to vote in the Republican Primary, 371,836 chose the Democratic Primary. Money-wise, Lee spent under $5 million on television, while Boyd spent $16 million, Black spent $10 million and Harwell $3.1 million. Lee avoided negative advertising, while Black and Boyd attacked each roundly. Trump made no endorsement in the race, although Vice President Pence came out for Black late in the campaign. Lee is a political neophyte but is no outsider: He served on several commissions under Gov. Bill Haslam (R).