The running joke among Florida political journalists is that the state's inept Democratic Party runs a centrist from Tampa every single year for governor. The past few decades of Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been milquetoast centrists who love palling around with their Republican colleagues in Tallahassee and sharing stories about staggering home from bars during their time at FSU. Florida, it seems, does not create populist firebrands.
All of that changed tonight when Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won an upset victory over presumed frontrunner Gwen Graham, a former North Florida congresswoman. Graham is the daughter of Bob Graham, Florida's 38th governor — to a certain subset of the Florida Democratic Party's lanyard-wearing political-consultant class, Graham was the perfect candidate for governor in 2018 — and a woman who said mean things about Donald Trump without rocking the boat too much. She tiptoed on Medicare-for-all. She hung out in the Hamptons with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. She was someone who would get things done as governor because she wasn't aiming too high. She was the realistic one.
She was, in other words, the same boring candidate the Florida Democrats always run for governor. And she lost as she should have.
Instead, Florida Democrats have selected Gillum, a Bernie Sanders-endorsed progressive gifted with the ability — and bravery — to clearly and concisely articulate his platform to voters and to defend his ideas from bad-faith attacks from the right. He ran on abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He ran on instituting Medicare-for-all and giving all Americans health care. He ran on equal pay for women. He ran on legalizing marijuana. He ran on making college debt-free and overhauling the state criminal justice system. Then he effectively explained how those ideas would create jobs in the Sunshine State. The ideas were new, obvious, simple, and at the forefront of his campaign.
Contrast his campaign with Graham's. Gillum, the state's first black gubernatorial nominee, crushed her in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. Though Gillum is not a socialist, he earned the support of many Miami-Dade County Democratic Socialists of America members and labor organizers. Graham, in comparison, held a free Jimmy Buffett concert for baby-boomers in Broward this month and still lost. Her campaign did not have good answers for the numerous ethical questions that sprouted from her past, including why she cast many right-leaning votes as a congresswoman and why her family has a financial stake in a huge Miami-Dade megamall project that, if built, might encroach on the Everglades. In post-Trump America, nobody bought that the candidate Democrats needed to fight the ultra-reactionary right was a milquetoast centrist who pals around with Ivanka and Jared.
(The same can be said for the number three and four candidates in the race — ex-Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and random billionaire and Mar-a-Lago member Jeff Greene — who performed miserably and entered the race only because they were able to loan their own campaigns money.)
That's not to say Gillum doesn't also have questions left to answer. His Tally mayoral office is still the target of an FBI investigation into the way his administration handled public-housing and other city-revitalization contracts — and Gillum himself appears to have perilously close ties with some targets of the investigation. Though many of the coming attacks on him are sure to be bad-faith heaps of nonsense and race-baiting (South Florida Newsmax pundit and outright racist John Cardillo called Gillum "more left" than New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which is factually bunk because Ocasio-Cortez is an outright socialist), the FBI probe will hang over Gillum's campaign until the feds either charge someone or back off. (Gillum has also been a politician for more than a decade. He was able to curry favor with state and federal power brokers deftly and might still need to convince some on the left that he's genuine.)
Oddly, Gillum cleaned up in Miami while another progressive, state legislator David Richardson, lost to former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala. But the race was close — Richardson wound up losing by about 2,000 votes — and he competed with Shalala, who had far more name recognition and political connections. Richardson lost, but the other candidates who were too timid to run to Shalala's left got flattened.
Florida's Republican candidate for governor, Ron DeSantis, is a Trump-endorsed lunatic who seems hellbent on doing whatever he can to keep his tanned, vacant-looking face on Fox News as long as possible. That is a terrifying prospect. His most viral campaign ad included a shot of him teaching his child about "building the wall" between the United States and Mexico even though Florida doesn't share a land border with any other country. He has already begun sniping at Gillum, but the state Democrats have finally elected someone who might be able to counter bad-faith attacks from the state's ever-surging right wing.
That's because Gillum is a new breed of candidate for the Florida Democrats. The party is frequently beset by leadership struggles and is often the butt of jokes among reporters for its near-constant ability to lose easily winnable races in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. Rick Scott, for example, won two terms despite being a white-collar criminal and Medicare fraudster. The state's Democratic candidates since 2000 have been former Republican Charlie Crist, former banking executive Alex Sink, Clintonite "New Democrat" Jim Davis, and Central Florida's forgettable Bill McBride. To say Gillum's platform is more exciting than Crist's is like saying a Sherman tank has more firepower than a slingshot. Whether or not you like Gillum, it's fair to say the state hasn't seen a gubernatorial candidate like him before.