ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Ron DeSantis decided a year ago on a Donald Trump-first strategy in his run for Florida governor, and now the president is making certain he sticks with it.
Trump will appear with DeSantis at a rally in Fort Myers Wednesday night and again in Pensacola Saturday night ― effectively making it impossible for the former congressman to put some distance between himself and Trump even if he wanted to.
“On October 31, Florida is in for a treat! President @realDonaldTrump will be joining us in Fort Myers for a #MAGA rally! You won’t want to miss it,” DeSantis wrote on Twitter Monday, and then added: “Stand with me. Stand with our President. Stand for Florida.”
For Floridians used to statewide candidates who try to appeal to moderate Democrats and Republicans as well as those registered with no party affiliation, the combination of Trump’s involvement and Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum’s readiness to take the fight right back to him is making for an unprecedented “base” election.
Sandwiched between Trump’s two appearances in solidly Republican parts of Florida, in fact, will be one by former President Barack Obama, who remains a hero among core Democrats. Obama, who carried Florida in both of his successful White House campaigns, will headline a rally for Gillum on Friday in Miami.
The message from Obama as well as other national Democratic figures: Trump is a reckless, divisive and dangerous president and the only way to stop him is to elect Democrats next week.
“Obama going to Miami and Trump going to Fort Myers and Pensacola ― this isn’t about persuading,” said Mac Stipanovich, a chief of staff to one former Republican governor of Florida and a campaign manager for two. “This is about getting the already persuaded to vote.”
The nationalization of the governor’s race is welcomed by loyal partisans.
Ari Feinman didn’t know much about DeSantis when he learned that the GOP nominee would be appearing at a Miami-area bagel shop where he was having a late lunch last week ― apart from the Trump connection.
“He’s the Trump-endorsed candidate,” Feinman said. “That’s enough for me.”
Across the state in Tampa, Diane Flores was eager to send Trump a message as she waited in a long line to see former Vice President Joe Biden campaign for Gillum. “Ron DeSantis is a cult follower in the cult of the Orange One,” she said of Trump.
One longtime Republican consultant ― but who in this year’s gubernatorial primary supported former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat ― said the way the race has evolved has meant a big chunk of Florida voters is being ignored.
“While Dem and GOP Florida voters will be using contests for statewide office to send messages into a wholly nationalized conversation, more than 1 million Florida independent voters want to send a message to both,” said Adam Goodman. “Ignore these tie-breakers at your peril.”
Breaking With Tradition
For the better part of a year, veteran observers of Florida politics assumed that the general election gubernatorial contest would pit Adam Putnam, the Republican Party establishment favorite with a long pedigree in the state, against Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman and daughter of Florida Democratic icon Bob Graham, a former governor and senator.
He would not be where he is if Donald Trump had not literally reached down and anointed him Mac Stipanovich, veteran Florida GOP political operative, referring to Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis.
Putnam was considered a mainstream Republican in the mold of former Gov. Jeb Bush, and Graham was thought to be more liberal than her father on many issues but centrist enough to win over some GOP voters, particularly women.
But the assumption of a race between these two fought between the 40-yard-lines of a political field was upended in Florida’s August primary, when DeSantis, a three-term congressman from the wealthy Jacksonville suburbs, overwhelmed Putnam and Gillum, a progressive favorite and the mayor of Tallahassee, edged out Graham.
Gillum was able to come from behind in the polls to win after another contender in the Democratic race, billionaire Jeff Green, spent some $15 million attacking Graham and Levine with negative TV ads. DeSantis rose from single digits in the polls to an easy win after Trump endorsed him on Twitter, in speeches and, eventually, at a rally on his behalf.
“He would not be where he is if Donald Trump had not literally reached down and anointed him,” Stipanovich said.
DeSantis’ campaign was fully aware of this in early spring, when he was far behind in the polls, and acknowledged even then that the strategy would require them to remain in lockstep with Trump for the general election. They argued that it was not really a disadvantage because Democrats would try to make the case that any GOP nominee was a Trump clone to energize their own voters. Given that the Republican was going to bear the burden of Trump regardless, he may as well receive the benefit of his loyal supporters, the campaign believed.
Indeed, DeSantis’ entire primary campaign was based on his admiration for and endorsement from Trump. Rather than appear at a traditional schedule of grassroots events around the state ― as Putnam was doing ― DeSantis largely “campaigned” from Fox News studios near the Capitol in Washington, where he defended Trump and attacked Democrats on whatever national issues happened to be in the headlines.
DeSantis rented the same office space for his campaign headquarters ― on the 10th floor of a high-rise building in downtown Orlando ― that Trump had used in 2016, despite the difficulty for supporters and volunteers to get to it. And in the primary’s final weeks, DeSantis aired a campaign ad glorifying Trump using his toddler and infant as props ― even dressing the baby in a “Make America Great Again” onesie.
Notwithstanding all of this, DeSantis has tried to distance himself from Trump at least twice ― both times when the president insulted Puerto Ricans, who make up a large and growing community in central Florida. Trump in September falsely claimed that the estimate that 2,975 had died on the island because of Hurricane Maria last year was an invention by Democrats to make him look bad. And last week he accused Puerto Ricans of defrauding the federal government by misusing storm relief money.
“I’m supporting things on behalf of the American people,” DeSantis said during a visit to the Miami-area bagel shop to court Jewish voters. “This idea that somehow that means every utterance I’m in agreement with, that’s just not the way it works.”
But even if DeSantis would like to open a little space between himself and Trump, two visits in five days by the president just ahead of Election Day will likely make that next to impossible ― which his Democratic opponent appears to believe is just fine.
“He’s his stooge,” Gillum said of DeSantis at the first of two candidate debates this month. “He will lead the effort to worship at the feet of Donald Trump.”
On Tuesday, after DeSantis said he agreed with Trump about ending “birthright citizenship” for children of illegal immigrants born in the United States, Gillum fired back quickly on Twitter:
“I can’t tell where @realDonaldTrump ends and @RonDeSantisFL begins. This is not who we are. Floridians deserve a Governor who will stand up for everyone in our state, not bow down to Donald Trump’s every unconstitutional whim.”
Gillum years ago won over national progressive groups, who saw a rising star in the young African-American elected to the Tallahassee City Commission while he was still in college. And while liberal audiences love his ability to articulate their agenda with optimism, Gillum has also made it clear in recent weeks that he doesn’t mind giving back as good as he’s gotten.
“Don’t let the smooth taste fool you,” he joked to a St. Petersburg audience recently. “I graduated high school in Gainesville — but I grew up in Miami-Dade.”
So while other Democrats running in swing states have shied away from attacking Trump for fear of losing some moderate voters, Gillum has zeroed in on the character trait that the president appears most insecure about: his perceived strength.
“Donald Trump is weak. And he performs as all weak people do: They become bullies,” Gillum said in the first debate with DeSantis. And Monday, after Trump called him a “thief” in a TV interview, Gillum repeated his charge, saying Trump “is howling because he’s weak. Florida, go vote today.”
Contrasting Campaign Energy
On a recent Thursday morning, business was brisk at the Gillum campaign office in Orlando. Volunteers loaded up a truck with canned goods, toiletries, paper towels, diapers and bottled water to help out Hurricane Michael storm victims hundreds of miles away in the state’s panhandle. Upstairs, volunteers streamed in and out carrying yard signs and clipboards with walk lists. Phone banking was scheduled for later that afternoon.
“Gillum was so good from day one,” said Nancy Lilley, a retiree from nearby Winter Park, after helping fill the truck with the donations. “I was so impressed.”
A few miles away at the DeSantis headquarters in the downtown high rise, the mood was very different. There were no volunteers in sight, and any who showed up likely would have been annoyed by the lack of free parking in the area. The doors are kept locked and the campaign is not interested in showing off its operation. The field office of the Florida Republican Party a short drive away was similarly quiet.
That enthusiasm gap has shown up at campaign events, as well. Gillum’s town halls and rallies frequently host many hundreds of participants, sometimes more – even in predominantly GOP counties.
Amie Marion, who waited under a hot sun for over an hour to see Gillum in St. Peterburg recently, said part of the excitement is that Democrats see him as their best chance in decades of actually winning. “They are tired,” she said. “People want change.”
DeSantis, in contrast, frequently has had trouble mustering even 50 supporters to events in the closing weeks.
“DeSantis is a Trump hologram right down to his Orlando campaign office,” Stipanovich said. “His campaign is to some extent a Potemkin village. There is no there there.”
Stipanovich said that whichever candidate wins next week ― polls suggest it will be close ― it will validate a model that upends modern Florida political history that has seen the gubernatorial nominees from both parties trying to edge toward more centrist positions in the general election campaign to win over unaligned independent voters.
That same pattern would have held in this election, as well, had Gillum’s surge not coincided with the attack ad barrage from Green against Graham and Levine.
Stipanovich said Gillum has the advantage of being able to offer new ideas while DeSantis really cannot run on anything other than preserving the status quo built over 20 years of Republican rule.
“He has very little opportunity to be exciting, to be the change agent,” Stipanovich said. “Andrew Gillum is the outsider. The disrupter.”
And if that disruptive campaign brings him the governor’s mansion, that victory will likely embolden liberal Democrats both in Florida and across the country to believe that the way to win is not to tack to the center in general elections.
“Gillum keeps going left. It is fascinating,” Stipanovich said. “Gillum is the real deal. He is the unapologetic progressive.”