By Hastings Wyman –
Primaries in two Southern states last week continued the trend toward nominating candidates who appeal to disaffected voters. In Florida, surprising both pollsters and politicos, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum became the first African American to win Florida’s primary for governor. His victory mirrors that of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, where the former state representative defeated a white lawmaker for her party’s nomination for governor. Thus, the old Democratic establishments are finding themselves on the defensive as minority voters and left-of-center whites coalesce behind barrier-breaking candidates.
The same trend was apparent in Oklahoma on the Republican side. Millionaire Kevin Stitt, who has never held public office, defeated Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett in the GOP’s gubernatorial runoff. Stitt, who ran as a conservative outsider, easily defeated the long-time business-oriented but progressive official.
“What a shocker!” proclaimed Barney Bishop, Tallahassee-based political analyst, and indeed it was. Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee who had been relegated to the also-rans in pre-primary polls and speculation, snuck up on everybody and became the first African American to win a major party gubernatorial nomination in Florida.
Several factors helped Gillum win the primary. First, a majority of registered Democrats in the state are non-white and he courted this vote assiduously. Gillum “went after the very groups that have the worst record of turnout in mid-term, the young and African Americans. He understood the changing demographics of Florida,” says Dr. Susan MacManus, Distinguished Professor Emerita of political science at the University of South Florida.
Since Gillum was the only black candidate on the Democratic ballot, other candidates avoided attacking him, but instead aimed their fire on each other. Moreover, given the large number of candidates, Gillum knew he only needed to get in the mid-30s to win. Although underfunded, Gillum did get help from liberal billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros. Moreover, Bernie Sanders campaigned for Gillum and his 2016 presidential organization helped Gillum. And former US Rep. Gwen Graham, the favorite of the Democratic establishment who came in second in the primary, warmly endorsed Gillum.
Finally, independents make up one-third of the electorate. They could not vote in the primary, but many of them are young or Hispanic, and might vote for Gillum in November.
These factors will mostly, but not all, be there for Gillum in November. However, he will no longer be free from media and opposition scrutiny. The FBI is in the midst of an investigation into Tallahassee city contracts, among other issues, which the GOP is sure to exploit. And, says one observer, Tallahassee under Gillum “has bad crime, high taxes, and poor hurricane response. Moreover, the leftist message that Gillum espouses may have helped him among Democratic voters but will serve as targets for Republican negative advertising in the post Labor Day campaign.
On the Republican side, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a long-time Republican officeholder and a favorite of his party’s establishment, took “a shellacking,” said one GOP operative. Indeed, US Rep. Ron DeSantis, wearing the mantle of President Trump’s endorsement, sailed to a 20-point victory. Putnam ran well in some urban areas, but DeSantis swamped him in rural areas, where Trump is strong.
Primary turnout numbers favored the GOP. There are nearly 250,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but some 109,000 more Republicans voted last Tuesday.
DeSantis, of course, either stupidly or naively, said on Fox News that “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this [prosperity] up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda.” He was promptly accused of using racist terminology, which he has denied. At a minimum, the comment will give Gillum supporters a powerful turn-out weapon in November.
Nevertheless, Trump carried Florida in 2016 and still has a 50% approval rating in the state, 90% among Republicans. Moreover, DeSantis, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, “is a better candidate than most people realize,” says the GOP operative, but asserts it is now time for DeSantis to present what plans he has to help Floridians.
“No African American has ever been elected governor of Florida,” says Bishop, “but then no African American has been a major party nominee either.” Adds MacManus, “Neither nominee can unite the state.”
Kevin Stitt, a mortgage banker, a successful businessman who had never held office before, won the Republican gubernatorial runoff last week, defeating Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett by 54.6% to 45.4%. In November Stitt will face Drew Edmondson, 71, a former state attorney general and the scion of a family long prominent in Sooner State politics. Since Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is term-limited, there was no incumbent in the race. Stitt carried 69 counties, most of them rural. Cornett carried nine, mostly urban.
Lt. Gov. Brian Lamb (R) was eliminated in the June primary. “A lot of Lamb donors in Oklahoma City went with Cornett, but the voters were for Stitt,” says Chad Alexander, former Republican State Chairman. “Stitt ran as an outsider, and more conservative… Young voters were for Cornett but didn’t vote in the runoff.”
Cornett and Lamb were not the only experienced political figures in the Sooner State who lost this year. This cycle, 12 incumbent legislators lost, six in the June primary and six more in the runoff. This compares with a total of six who lost in the last three decades.
Negative tv spots against Edmondson started the day after the runoff.
Since all 77 counties went for Trump in 2016, Stitt is the early favorite. But Edmundson has broad name ID and will wage a competitive campaign.
In sum, November will feature a number of polarizing elections, with Trump-oriented GOPers squaring off against unapologetic liberals. Stay tuned!