Shortly after progressive Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won the Democratic primary for governor on Tuesday night, Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted his congratulations to Gillum and the Floridians who “joined Andrew in standing up and demanding real change.”
Gillum’s upset victory over centrist Congresswoman Gwen Graham, the daughter of Senator Bob Graham, as well as self-financing millionaire and former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, pushed Florida into new territory. Gillum would be the first African American governor of the Southern swing state, which has been led by three successive Republicans governors, and where Democrats traditionally choose middle-of-the-road, pro-business candidates.
“I’ve never volunteered on a campaign EVER!!! But I’m spending every second of free time I have volunteering on this campaign!” one pumped-up Gillum supporter tweeted in reply to Sanders’s congratulations. “@AndrewGillum is the change we need in Florida!! Not running republican light!! I haven’t been this excited in years!”
Gillum came from behind in the polls, with an underfinanced campaign and an electrifying progressive message. Billing himself as “the only non-millionaire in the race,” he promised to reinvest in Florida’s public school system by raising taxes on corporations, repeal the Stand Your Ground law that gives gun owners the right to shoot people they perceive as threatening, and to reject the kind of politics that led current Florida Governor Rick Scott to turn away federal Medicaid dollars, stranding millions of Floridians without health care.
Gillum came from behind in the polls, with an underfinanced campaign and an electrifying progressive message.
Gillum is a charismatic politician with an appealing personal story, as the first member of his family to graduate from high school. An outspoken social justice advocate, he has called for impeaching Donald Trump and doing away with ICE. He made a strong pitch to millennials, and told fellow Democrats that, instead of competing for a narrower and narrower slice of the centrist, white swing vote, they needed to appeal to people of color and young voters who have been turned off by establishment politicians.
The governor’s race will test Gillum’s bolder approach, pitting an outspoken progressive against an ardent Trump supporter, Ron DeSantis, who has energetically defended the President, earning him Trump’s endorsement.
In primary elections across the country Republicans hung on tight to Trump.
In Arizona, as flags were lowered in honor of the late Senator John McCain, McCain’s bipartisan legislative style appeared to die with him. Republican candidates vying for the Senate seat vacated by moderate Republican Jeff Flake competed to show how close they were to Trump—who, having insulted and demeaned McCain, was asked not to attend his funeral.
Representative Martha McSally, the winner of the Senate primary in Arizona, beat the immigrant-bashing sheriff of Maricopa County Joe Arpaio, as well as Kelli Ward, McCain’s 2016 primary challenger, who made a tasteless comment shortly after his death, tweeting “Political correctness is like a cancer!”
McSally, seen as the moderate (and the most electable candidate) in the three-way race, will face Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema in November in what is expected to be a closely fought battle. While McSally once criticized Trump for his lewd comments about women in an Access Hollywood tape, she sought during the campaign to demonstrate her closeness to the President on issues including immigration, and Trump spoke warmly about her.
“The Republican Party is President Trump’s party, and any politician that you see across the country who has not been adequately supportive of President Trump has paid a price for that,” GOP political consultant Trebor Worthen told Fox News, commenting on the results of the Oklahoma primary for governor.
Political novice Kevin Stitt, the owner of a Tulsa mortgage company, won the Republican nomination for governor of Oklahoma, defeating former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
Cornett tried to make an issue of Stitt’s lack of experience in government, asking, in a debate, where he’d been the last few years.
“I’ve been in the private sector, in the real world creating jobs,” Stitt shot back—sounding like Donald Trump. “I haven’t been cashing a government check.”
Trump seems delighted by the outcome of races in which his preferred candidates won—bragging about his influence in Florida, where he claimed credit for DeSantis, whom he took a shine to after DeSantis repeatedly went appeared on Fox News to defend Trump.
“He was at three, and I gave him a nice shot, and a nice little tweet,” Trump said at a rally in West Virginia. “Bing-bing. And he went from three to like twenty-something.”
But the primary results were also encouraging for Democrats.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, the Democratic candidate for governor, is ahead of Trump supporter Kevin Stitt in the same polls that showed he would have lost to Cornett—raising Democrats’ hopes of grabbing the conservative state’s governor’s mansion.
And in Florida, where an energized electorate is responding to Andrew Gillum’s calls for a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage and Medicare-for-all, billionaire Tom Steyer, who gave a last-minute gift of $300,000 to Gillum’s campaign, told The New Yorker that he sees, in Gillum, the face of a new generation of Democrats.
“I am overwhelmed,” Gillum said in his victory speech Tuesday night. “There were just a few people who said that this victory would not be possible . . . and then there were a few more who believed that this thing was possible.”
To cheers, he told his supporters, “I realize that for some they are just tuning into the possibility of what this means for all of us.”
Thanking his mother, a school bus driver, and his father, a construction worker, he declared, “There are everyday hardworking people in this state who believe that they deserve a voice in our government too, and we are going to give it to them.”
Gillum talked about how public education ended his family’s poverty, and issued a ringing call for better wages for workers, a clean environment, and health care as “a right, not a privilege.”
Gillum’s message is a powerful answer to the rapacious politics that have exacerbated inequality.
That message—about a strong public sphere and opportunity for all—is a powerful answer to the rapacious politics that have exacerbated inequality in Florida and across the country.
On the national scene, Gillum declared that Florida will show the way out of the Donald Trump era and into a less divisive, more inclusive future.
If that’s true, in this midterm election year, it could mean getting enough of a “Blue Wave” going to help defend Florida’s vulnerable Senate seat. Nationally, the Democrats need to pick up two seats to overcome the Republicans’ current fifty-one-seat majority in the Senate, while defending a handful of vulnerable seats across the country. It’s a tall order, but not impossible,
In the House, Democrats need to win twenty-four seats to take control. That seems increasingly likely.
But whatever the outcome in the fall, the general tone of politics in the country is rapidly moving in a new direction. Tuesday’s primaries set the stage—for a Republican Party that is doubling down on Trumpism, and for a Democratic Party that is searching for, and maybe beginning to find, an answering voice.