Ernest Hooper: Gillum’s win may be payback for put-down of progressives in presidential race

Andrew Gillum addresses his supporters Tuesday after winning the Democrat primary in the race for governor. [AP photo/Steve Cannon]
Andrew Gillum addresses his supporters Tuesday after winning the Democrat primary in the race for governor. [AP photo/Steve Cannon]
Published August 28 2018
Updated August 29 2018

Andrew Gillum’s victory in the Democratic primary stunned some, but not those who bought into Gillum’s message and vision early and never swayed.

In fact, they may bristle at the description of his win as stunning, even though he did defeat a field full of well-monied candidates. The biggest surprise may not be that Gillum is the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination for Florida governor, but that he’s the first progressive in the modern era to win a primary.

In his victory speech, Gillum said his name on the ballot is simply a vessel for all the issues his supporters care so deeply about, including improving public education funding, raising job wages, expanding Medicaid and making this a state "for all of us."

RELATED: Winners and losers of Florida’s primary election

He can command a crowd and engage a live audience like no other candidate running for office in Florida this year — and I mean in every race.

But I see some other factors. I think Gillum’s success also relates directly to the 2016 presidential election, and not just because Bernie Sanders provided a lift to Gillum in a pair of big rallies.

The 2016 Democratic National Committee narrative had to be a factor. Sanders and his backers were told he couldn’t win in the general and they needed to make way for Hillary Clinton. Clinton, of course, lost to Donald Trump. It didn’t help that the DNC tilted the process in favor of Clinton, souring some Sanders supporters.

Regardless, the outcome undoubtedly left a lingering sting that emerged Tuesday.

Progressives are no longer willing to buy into polls and forecasts predicting doom for the candidate who best represents their values. Every Gillum supporter I spoke to leading up to Tuesday argued they would stick with the guy they truly believed in.

The majority of Democratic voters also no longer want to pursue the moderate formula that had failed the party in the last four elections. Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Florida governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham who built his political success from the center, couldn’t successfully utilize that approach.

She did finish second, however, which may mean Gillum will have to go beyond exciting the base and make a concerted effort to reach moderate Democrats and never-Trump Republicans. Gillum already argues he’s bridged the divide between Sanders Democrats and Clinton Democrats.

Still, it’s interesting that three of the four former Democratic gubernatorial candidates who tried to follow the path blazed by the likes of Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles — Jim Davis, Bill McBride and Alex Sink — all hailed from Hillsborough County, and came up short.

On Tuesday, Gillum carried Hillsborough by almost 5 percentage points. Throw in the fact Clinton carried Hillsborough in 2016, and it’s another signal that the county — and especially the city of Tampa—- has grown more blue and more unpredictable.

What all of this portends for November remains to be seen, but it could be a strong signal for Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith, Democrats who easily won their countywide County Commission primaries.

It also could be a signal that congressional races in parts of Hillsborough could swing left. Congressional District 12, which slices into the northern part of the county, pits Democrat Chris Hunter against Republican incumbent Gus Bilirakis. District 15, which includes most of East Hillsborough, has Democrat Kristen Carlson facing Republican and former state representative Ross Spano.

Of course, Hillsborough’s status as a barometer for state elections may be fading. As excited as Gillum and supporters may be, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis also has reason to be confident. He easily defeated Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, a guy I started calling, "the man who will be governor" eight years ago.

DeSantis had a different idea about Putnam’s future, and his pedigree may override his wavering grasp of state issues — an area where he clearly needs to improve. Plus, he’s got time to study up while hoping the passion of the far-right is the equal of the passion of progressives.

The path for DeSantis, however, may be more difficult than what Gillum must pursue. If the GOP nominee goes all in on his Trumpocracy brand with no appeal to the center, it could be trouble.

In the end, the results from Tuesday’s primary signal dynamic movement for the state and the county. We’re witnessing a sea change, with an anti-establishment infusion on both the GOP and Democratic sides.

I can’t figure out why more people don’t want to engage. No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, now is not the time to sit out. Be a part of history. Vote.

That’s all I’m saying.