DeSantis gets aggressive against Gillum in Florida governor’s race

A renewed offensive puts Gillum campaign on defense.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis talks to the media after a campaign stop Thursday at the Italian Club in Ybor City. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis talks to the media after a campaign stop Thursday at the Italian Club in Ybor City. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Oct. 6, 2018

For much of the first half of the general election campaign, Democrat Andrew Gillum has enjoyed a consistent if thin lead that few in his party might have expected when he won its nomination for governor.

But a renewed offensive from Republican rival Ron DeSantis has pushed the Tallahassee mayor's campaign this week to parry on the economy, on Israel and on his record handling the city's first hurricane in decades, in an early sign that the already narrow race may become even tighter.

Some of the defensive moves the Gillum campaign has had to make have been the result of its own missteps: The campaign let go of its director of youth outreach, Manny Orozco-Ballestas, last weekend after several offensive tweets from 2012 and 2013 surfaced, and a businessman brought onto a call with reporters to refute attacks on Gillum's economic plan had to apologize Thursday for calling Florida a "s—hole" regarding government support to the needy.

But other moves — while the candidate has also been campaigning on red tide in Sarasota and on transportation in Orlando — have pushed back on the attacks aimed at the Democratic nominee following the addition of longtime Republican operative Susie Wiles to the DeSantis campaign.

"Having a good defense is how you win championships," said campaign adviser Kevin Cate, though he argued the Gillum camp was responding proactively, not reactively, to Republican attacks. "We're outworking them on offense and certainly on defense, because we have the truth on our side."

Among those new Republican salvos have been variations on the theme that Gillum is too "radical" for Florida's low-tax economy. Before DeSantis rolled out his economic plan Friday, the Republican Governors Association released an advertisement mid-week that sharply criticized Gillum's proposed tax increase on Florida's wealthiest corporations, arguing the proposal would bring Florida's economy "to a sudden stop."

Gillum's campaign fired back, hosting a call with lieutenant governor nominee Chris King and two Florida businessmen Thursday morning to refute the ad, which prompted the "s—hole" comment that King and the businessman, Ken LaRoe, had to walk back.

Gillum's campaign also deployed Hispanic Democratic elected officials — state Sens. Annette Taddeo and Jose Javier Rodriguez — to counter new Spanish-language ads Tuesday from the state Republican Party asserting he would "impose socialist ideas on Florida" if sent to the Governor's Mansion. (Gillum's liberal economic policy proposals have at no point included socialism, or the abolition of private business, though DeSantis nonetheless called Gillum a "quasi-socialist" at a Tampa event Thursday.)

DeSantis has also gone to great lengths to cast Gillum as friendly to anti-Semitic organizations and people. Republicans have attacked King over inflammatory comments he made after losing a student government election at Harvard nearly 20 years ago. And they've highlighted Gillum's support from the Dream Defenders, a social justice organization that argues for a boycott of Israel.

Last week, text messages were sent to voters with Jewish surnames highlighting King's comments. The DeSantis campaign did not deny involvement.

In reaction, Gillum's campaign has brought forth surrogates to denounce DeSantis and defend his record on Israel. On Sunday, Gillum is headed to a Jewish center at the Century Village in Pembroke Pines with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — both prominent Jewish politicians — to "discuss what's at stake for seniors and the Jewish community in this election."

And as one of hurricane season's busiest months begins, the Republican Party of Florida launched a pair of ads Thursday featuring two Tallahassee women hammering Gillum for the city's decision to not accept Florida Power & Light crews after Hurricane Hermine in 2016.

Though the decision was made chiefly by the city's utilities director and the director of the regional municipal electric association, the ads cited days-long power outages as proof Gillum is "unfit to lead." (The ads do not provide the last names of the women, and party spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice declined to make them available for comment.)

Gillum's campaign also rolled out a video featuring political ally Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, accusing DeSantis of "using hurricanes to score political points."

Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster and political consultant, said he doesn't think Gillum's campaign has been defensive as much as he thinks DeSantis' campaign has been "desperate."

"DeSantis thinks the only way to try and catch up is to go scorched earth. He's throwing a fusillade of accusations against Gillum," he said. "First he was a socialist. Then it was the 'monkey it up' comment. Gillum has been knocking these down left and right, these failed desperate attacks."

Polling has suggested a possible lag in Gillum's momentum, as thousands of absentee ballots went out to voters this week. Three recent polls show Gillum or DeSantis ahead by two or fewer points and within the margin of error, reflecting the narrow margins Floridians have come to expect from top-of-ticket races.

It's worth noting that DeSantis has yet to lead so far in any poll made public. And Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson said there is still skepticism among party faithful that Wiles can rescue DeSantis' campaign.

But Brad Coker, the Mason-Dixon pollster who found Gillum ahead by only 1 point during the late-September Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, says Republicans appear to be rallying behind DeSantis.

"I think the Kavanaugh hearings started to galvanize Republicans to the extent that any (Adam) Putnam voters or establishment country club types who aren't really Trump fans might have been holding out on DeSantis, I think any bounce he got might have been the result of Republicans getting mad at the Democrats in Washington," Coker said. He said he thinks Gillum's Achilles' heel is his unabashedly progressive platform in a state that has voted more conservative in midterm elections, he said. "That said, I expect it to be a close race. I'm still not convinced Gillum can win."