TALLAHASSEE — The gubernatorial race in Florida seems to have taken over political discourse across the state and around the country, creating what some pundits are calling a bellwether for politics across America. Critics of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum call him far too liberal. Critics of Rep. Ron DeSantis say he's a Trump ideologue.
But below their names on the ballot are four candidates who say they fall somewhere in the middle — one from the Reform Party of Florida, and three without political affiliations. They don't have the budgets to buy television or radio spots, and their campaign accounts are peanuts next to Gillum's or DeSantis'. One described himself as the "Invisible Man." Another said, less than three weeks out, that it's going to be a "long, hard battle."
These candidates, whose triumph is virtually impossible, have put in thousands of dollars of their own money into filing fees and campaign expenses. They say it's not a waste, but an opportunity.
So why did they decide to run in one of the biggest midterm races of the year?
The answer, they say, lies in a divided political climate.
Darcy Richardson, a Jacksonville-based author and third-party political expert, is the Reform Party of Florida's nominee for governor.
The Reform Party of Florida, created by Ross Perot in his 1996 campaign for president, was recently revived in an effort to end hyper-partisanship and what they call the "needless polarization of American politics."
That, Richardson said, is what he is aiming to do.
Richardson, 62, moved to Florida in 1993 after a start in politics that crisscrossed the nation. He became involved in the political scene in 1976 as a volunteer for former Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign.
Richardson ran for statewide office in Pennsylvania in 1980 on the Consumer Party ticket and then again in 1988 for U.S. Senate. In 2010, he ran for as lieutenant governor with Farid Kavari as a No Party Affiliation candidate.
In 2012, Richardson offered himself as a "protest candidate" in several Democratic presidential primaries and in 2016, he ran for the Reform Party's presidential bid but came up short. He's never won an election.
His running mate, Nancy Argenziano, brings a high profile to the ticket. The former Republican state representative and senator from Citrus County chaired various committees during her time and was appointed in 2007 by former Gov. Charlie Crist to a seat on the state's Public Service Commission. In 2009, she became chairwoman of the PSC.
She left the job soon after so she could work for the election of Democrat Alex Sink in her 2010 run for governor against Rick Scott. In Argenziano's Florida Senate resignation letter, she said she was "terrified [that] if Rick Scott becomes governor, there is no check on the Legislature."
Richardson is not scared to call Gillum and DeSantis "extremists," and used words like "flabbergasted" to describe his reaction to their choices of running mates. His distaste for the candidates elevate his ticket, he says.
"Andrew Gillum was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, and Ron DeSantis… is an embarrassment," he said. "There's an opportunity for Nancy and myself. We have the entire middle."
Richardson has put more than $10,000 of his own money into the campaign, which has collected just $65,500 — pocket change in comparison to the front runners. But he said his experience in the private sector — 15 years as a financial analyst — makes him more qualified than both DeSantis and Gillum.
"Neither of these guys have any experience like that at all," he said.
Bruce Stanley, an environmental activist and self-employed project manager from Miami, is running as an independent.
At 34, Stanley broke into politics while advocating for statewide bans on fracking and for other environmental issues.
After encountering unresponsive lawmakers, he said, Stanley made the decision to run for office.
"I feel that we've been let down by both of the major parties enough times," he said. "We should no longer be convinced by their promises."
Stanley also says the current race is a "perfect storm" of divided party politics.
"I've rarely seen a race that looks like this," he said. "It's unfair to force 21 million Floridians to choose between an extreme left and an extreme right candidate."
Stanley's website lays out a long platform, with suggestions to reform everything from the branches of government to the economy to special-interest areas like labeling for genetically modified food and clean water. Stanley is interested in environmental issues like funding Florida Forever and supporting solar energy adoption, as well as supporting hemp production in the state and raising teacher pay.
His running mate, artist, DJ and land surveyor Ryan Howard McJury, is a pro-cannabis activist.
Stanley said the campaign is not accepting donations, though documents show just under $7,000 donations were made in his name.
He is also not endorsed by any environmental groups, which Stanley says is intentional. Groups like the Sierra Club tend to back the Democratic candidate for a safer vote, he says, and endorsements from partisan groups would alienate potential voters.
"I have put a lot of thought into this" he said. "One of the things that make my candidacy curious is that I don't fall neatly within the spectrum of left and right."
Nowadays, people are "hungry" for political outsiders, Stanley said. That's the reason he threw his hat into the ring.
"It's not as far-fetched as it might have been before," he said.
Kyle Gibson, a Fort Lauderdale pastor, is also running as an independent.
Gibson, 48, was born in Tallahassee to two music teachers and became interested in politics after meeting then-Gov. Reubin Askew during an elementary school field trip. Gibson attended Florida Atlantic University and graduated to become a teacher in Broward and Indian River counties. In the late 1990s, Gibson become a pastor.
Gibson, both a former Democrat and former Republican, ran as an independent candidate for governor in 2014, but dropped out of the race after multiple family deaths and two relatives' cancer diagnoses.
He says if he doesn't win, he'll use the campaign for the purposes of name recognition and run again in 2022.
"I have my eyes set on the governor's seat," he said.
Gibson's pick for lieutenant governor is Ellen Wilds, a 25-year veteran of the Department of Juvenile Justice. She qualified as a write-in candidate for governor in the Republican primary.
Gibson said the two are passionate about criminal reform. He had his rights restored after serving time for grand theft at age 19, and says civil rights restoration for all nonviolent criminals is "the fairest process." Gibson is also a third-generation educator and is passionate about early childhood programs.
Their campaign has raised about $22,800 so far, including $5,000 of Gibson's own money.
The last NPA candidate on the ballot is Ryan Christopher Foley, a former emergency medical technician.
Foley has no campaign website, received no campaign contributions and has been late to report any campaign activity since July.
The 34-year-old's pick for lieutenant governor, John Tutton, is a manager at an electric wheelchair company in Orlando.
Tutton and Foley were acquaintances from high school in the Orlando suburbs and reconnected when Foley decided to run. He said all they want is a better future for Florida.
"We are just regular people," Tutton said. "We aren't in it for a popularity contest."
Foley, who lives in Longwood with his parents, did not respond to several requests for comment with less than three weeks before the midterm election.