Carlton: In the fight for Florida governor, voters aren’t interested in meeting in the middle anymore

Published August 29 2018
Updated August 29 2018

You’d have to forgive some Florida Democrats if they woke up after Tuesday night’s stunning gubernatorial primary nursing some serious political hangovers.

After all, Democrats were expected to come out of this primary election with a certain centrist candidate — one whose politics even voters from other parties might be able to stomach and send to Tallahassee in November.

That was the plan, anyway.

The latest middle-of-the-road Democrat was Gwen Graham, a lawyer who served in the U.S. House of Representatives, daughter of popular former Florida governor Bob Graham and probable shoo-in for the Democratic spot on the ballot against whomever the Republicans ended up with once the votes got counted.


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Graham got taken out by the outspoken and unapologetically liberal mayor of Tallahassee, Democrat Andrew Gillum.

She got beaten by a guy who’s been openly stumping on some seriously hot button and polarizing issues. Like health care even for people who can’t afford it. A decent minimum wage. Legalizing marijuana. Everything that’s wrong with Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. Even — get this — a corporate tax that would benefit schools.

And somehow he won the day anyway.

If there’s a lesson in Graham’s unexpected defeat — and in Gillum’s suddenly very interesting prospects for Florida — maybe it’s this:

There’s no middle ground to our politics anymore.

The two candidates left standing could not be farther apart.

And maybe having unmuddled, very clear choices is not such a bad thing.

The contenders: The Republican who emerged victorious, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, 39, is an all-in-for-Trump man enthusiastically endorsed by the president himself, a badge DeSantis is expected to wear loud and proud.

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He’s a military veteran, staunch conservative and immigration hardliner. He even ran a TV ad — one that’s been described as both lighthearted and bizarre — showing him teaching his little girl to build a wall and say, "Make America Great Again." So no, not hard to see where he stands.

Then there’s Gillum, also 39, who gets described as both brash and charismatic. He was a non-millionaire in a race full of them. And speaking of endorsements, he got an interesting one from progressive former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who stumped for him at a rally here in Tampa only two weeks ago.

Could that have swayed some primary voters who weren’t satisfied with either side and thought they had nowhere to go?

And so with Gillum’s surprise victory, a new kind of race is already shaping up.

Gillum would notably be Florida’s first black governor in a state that still maintains some seriously old-school Deep South roots. He hadn’t had the nomination a full day before DeSantis was on TV saying the last thing we should do is "monkey this up" by embracing the Democrat’s agenda, the monkey reference quickly sparking both condemnation and denial.

And, we’re off.

With Tuesday’s surprise twist, it’s a governor’s election with distinct choices and candidates who couldn’t be more different — and a clear moment for Floridians to decide who we want to be.