Miami (AFP) – A charismatic black Democrat versus an anti-immigrant white Republican — the race for the governorship of Florida in next month’s US midterm elections is a microcosm of America’s bitterly divided politics, and possibly a sign of things to come in 2020.
Andrew Gillum, 39, mayor of the state capital Tallahassee, is the Democratic candidate — to his fervent supporters, he is an inspirational figure reminiscent of Barack Obama.
Gillum hopes to become the first African American governor of this southern state.
His Republican rival, former congressman Ron DeSantis, 40, is a politician cut from the cloth of President Donald Trump.
He wants limits on abortion, low taxes, tough immigration policies, and untrammeled rights to gun ownership.
Outsiders in their own parties, the two candidates stand at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
It’s as if Trump had run against far-left independent Senator Bernie Sanders — not Hillary Clinton — in the 2016 presidential elections.
“Florida’s always a bellwether,” said political analyst Susan McManus, of the University of South Florida.
Neither candidate is without baggage.
An FBI probe of corruption in Tallahassee has cast a shadow over Gillum, while DeSantis has been widely criticized for urging Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum, a comment denounced as racist.
Polls show the two men are even at this point, making the outcome of November 6 uncertain.
Florida is a heavyweight in presidential elections, with a populous and diverse electorate that encapsulates the current extreme polarities of US politics.
“We have an opportunity to send a message all across this country that I believe will reverberate across the 50 states, across this nation, across the world, that all is not lost and there’s still hope,” Gillum said last week at an event with Miami’s LGBT community.
His positions — he supports higher state taxes and more spending on the environment, education and health care — appeals to young voters and progressives.
“He is incredibly inspirational,” says Donald Shockey, a 60-year-old urban planner, who was moved to tears by Gillum’s presentation. “A wonderful human being,” he gushed.
Obama and Clinton have endorsed Gillum.
Also on board are young activists drawn to politics after the shooting massacre of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. They are recruiting new voters with videos that feature Hollywood actors talking tongue-in-cheek about their “first time.”
McManus notes that 52 percent of Florida’s registered voters are from younger generations — from Gen X through the Millennials to Gen Z (age 18 to 21).
“What we’re seeing here is a whole generational replacement occurring,” she said.
– Caution on polls –
But MacManus warns that Democrats may be overly optimistic about their chances, recalling that Floridians went for Trump in 2016.
“There seems to be an understatement of people who are going to vote for the Republican and a lot of that comes from the fact that the media demonizes, in a way, people who say that they’re conservative,” she said.
To win, Gillum has to get younger people and more people of color to turn out, Michael McDonald, an expert on elections at the University of Florida, said.
DeSantis, who benefited in the primaries from Trump’s endorsement, is courting centrist voters with a shift in focus to education and the environment.
“Trump’s appeal doesn’t extend well, you know, beyond the Republican base,” McDonald said.
– The Hispanic vote –
Hispanics could be the wild card.
Cubans were key to Trump’s victory in Florida, and DeSantis knows it.
He selected a Cuban-American, Jeanette Nunez, as his running mate, and plays to their fears.
In his most recent television ad, produced in Spanish, the Republican candidate warned voters of Gillum’s supposed “socialist ideas.”
“None of these ideas have worked in countries that we know of,” says an off-camera voice over an image that evokes Havana’s shabby housing. “Gillum’s agenda will bring the same results: Misery.”
On the other hand, about 50,000 Puerto Ricans moved to Florida after last year’s Hurricane Maria and they are expected to punish Trump and the Republicans for the delayed response to the disaster, which US researchers said killed nearly 3,000 people.
Half of Florida’s 13 million registered voters are either Cuban or Puerto Rican — 28 percent and 22 percent respectively, according to the Hispanic Federation, a non-governmental organization.
Since Puerto Rico is a US territory, Puerto Ricans resident in Florida can vote in US elections.
“Both parties are really aggressively going after that vote,” said McManus.
That’s why, said McDonald, “the Hispanic vote is up for grabs.”