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What Florida Democrats can learn from tonight’s Georgia governor primary

Like Florida, the state hasn't had a Democratic governor in over a decade.
Democratic candidates for governor of Florida, clockwise from upper left: Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King,
Democratic candidates for governor of Florida, clockwise from upper left: Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King,
Published May 22, 2018

If you listen closely enough, you might hear echoes of the Florida Democratic governor's race in tonight's Georgia primary.

Or you might hear nothing of the sort.

A recent New York Times story made the case that the race between Georgia House veterans Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans poses a question that Democrats all over the country will grapple with this midterm season.

"Democratic candidates nationwide are wrestling with whether they should try to reclaim some of President Trump's supporters or try to maximize support from their racially diverse, liberal base," the paper's Jonathan Martin and Richard Fausset wrote.

One could make the case that that same question hangs over the Florida governor primary. All of the Democrats in the race are relatively progressive, but some have been more aggressive in their messaging about activating the party's base than others.

"Our losses to Rick Scott in 2014 and 2010 taught us a valuable lesson: we need to give Democrats a reason to SHOW UP in our midterm elections. We can't run Republican Lite & hope our voters magically turn out in November," Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum tweeted Monday in what has become a familiar refrain.

Gillum's base turnout strategy sounds an awful lot like Abrams', who told New York Times, "The approach of trying to create a coalition that is centered around converting Republicans has failed Democrats in the state of Georgia for the last 15 years."

The Gillum campaign is all too happy to draw comparisons between Gillum and Abrams — the heavy favorite to win Tuesday's primary. Gillum even went so far as to endorse Abrams Tuesday morning.

"[Abrams] is a transformational and highly-qualified leader who has been on the forefront of lifting up Georgia's families, Gillum said in a statement. "She's precisely the kind of Democratic nominee who is going to flip Georgia blue in the fall."

Gillum and Abrams have plenty in common. America has never seen a black female governor. Florida has never elected a black man to the governor's mansion. And they're both endorsed by a few of the same major national organizations: Bernie Sanders' Our Revolution, Black PAC and Collective PAC.

Read more: Who funds the group bankrolling this Democratic candidate for governor?

But Gillum isn't the only Democrat who could get a boost from an Abrams win Tuesday. Abrams and former congresswoman Gwen Graham have both gotten substantial financial support this election season from Emily's List, a group that supports pro-choice Democratic women.

Of course, plenty in Florida politics circles would argue that the choice posed by the New York Times article — between activating the Democratic base and drawing voters from the other side of the aisle — is a false one. The Democratic nominee will likely have to do at least some of both to win in November.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who's polled at or near the top of the field for much of 2018, likes to say that he's not left or right, but "forward."

There are also significant differences between the Florida and Georgia races. For one, the Georgia primary is a two-person race. It's easier to draw a narrative-friendly line between the progressive and the establishment moderate in Georgia. (And even that narrative is somewhat inaccurate, as this excellent Vox piece explains.)

Such lines are more difficult to draw in Florida, although Gillum and Orlando-area businessman Chris King have shown eagerness to seize the progressive mantle.

"Chris believes the choice before Georgia Democrats today is the same choice Florida Democrats have in the August primary. Democrats can follow the same failed conventional politics of the past…or they can choose bold, progressive leadership," King spokesman Avery Jaffe told the Buzz in a statement.

The recent history of perceived ultra-progressives winning Democratic governor nominations is fairly spotty. In the past year, Our Revolution-backed candidates have lost governor primaries in Illinois, Ohio and Virginia. An Abrams win might prove to be the exception, not the rule.

No matter how Florida governor candidates try to spin the results of tonight's Georgia primary, the possibility of turning two southern governor's mansions blue after decades of Republican rule is exciting to liberals everywhere.

"The fact that they're able to put this in play is the story," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe said.