The Florida governor's race may be the nation's purest contest between a Donald Trump devotee and a hero of the progressive resistance, but it is also a clash of the megadonors.
The race has riveted the nation — and the nation's top donors — pitting Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson against liberal billionaires George Soros and Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The money is pouring in from coast to coast, with checks cut by Hollywood celebrities, hedge fund managers, public employee unions and top business executives. Everyday folk are also kicking in increments of less than $200.
"It's really a proxy battle," said longtime Republican political strategist Mac Stipanovich. "It's Donald Trump and his prestige against Democratic progressivism and what they hope is the wave of the future."
At stake is not just the governor's mansion, but a leg up in the battle for the White House in 2020. The leader of the nation's largest swing state will hold considerable sway. Either DeSantis, who resigned from Congress to pursue his run for governor, or Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee, will help shape the political landscape well into the next decade.
After the 2020 Census, the state and federal district maps will be redrawn on one or the other's watch.
The two candidates will meet in their final debate tonight.
With the ripples potentially so far reaching, Gillum and DeSantis have both attracted the support of billionaires from outside Florida, including Soros and Steyer, who have spent millions backing Gillum, and lllinois Republicans Richard Uihlein and Kenneth C. Griffin, DeSantis backers who collectively have matched them dollar for dollar — and then some.
Actor/producer Tyler Perry has given $100,000 to Gillum's PAC, while the wife of Marvel Entertainment's chairman has given DeSantis' PAC $2 million.
All told, more than half of the $32 million Gillum has raised for his campaign and political action committees has come from out of state, while roughly one-third of the $44 million DeSantis has brought in to his two committees has originated from outside Florida's borders, according to a Times/Herald analysis of state campaign finance records.
In a state long considered "purple" for its eclectic political mix, this year's election offers no middle-ground candidate. Both Gillum and DeSantis appeal strongly to their parties' base. Gillum, a staunch progressive, has supported a $15 minimum wage and expanding Medicaid. DeSantis, a founding member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House, is endorsed by Trump and has pledged to veto any bills that raise taxes.
The Times/Herald analysis shows that at least 71 percent of DeSantis' total cash raised has come from donors who gave at least $10,000. The corresponding number for Gillum: 59 percent. Families or couples were grouped together as single "donors" for purposes of this analysis.
No donor has given more to back DeSantis — not even the Republican Party — than the Chicago-based billionaire hedge fund manager Griffin, who has donated a staggering $5.7 million to DeSantis' PAC.
Laura Perlmutter, wife of Marvel Chairman Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter, has given DeSantis $2 million, while Republican megadonor and casino mogul Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have contributed a combined $500,000 to the Republican. Illinois shipping magnate Uihlein wrote a $500,000 check, along with $250,000 to another state committee that has in turn transferred almost all its funding to DeSantis.
Many of these donors are also among the biggest backers of the national Republican Governors Association, which has donated $1.5 million to DeSantis' accounts and poured $7.5 million into the Florida Facts PAC, which has spent millions on television ads aimed at boosting DeSantis.
"We are grateful for all of the tremendous support we've received. We have the momentum in the race and are working hard toward a big win in two weeks," said Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign.
Gillum counts many of the biggest Democratic donors among his supporters, contributing to his $32 million total.
His Forward Florida PAC has taken in more than $1.3 million from Soros and his family. Hedge fund manager Donald Sussman, who owns a home in Fort Lauderdale, has given $1 million to the PAC. NextGen Climate America, backed by Steyer, the high-profile financier of the impeach-Trump movement, has chipped in $800,000.
Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg and his affiliated Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund have collectively given the Gillum PAC $500,000, while two national unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers, have given more than $2 million combined.
Gillum's PAC has also taken in $4 million from the national Democratic Governors Association, which also counts many of Gillum's biggest backers among its top donors.
Gillum's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
While many of these donors aren't strangers to Florida politics, the giving represents an increase from past gubernatorial campaigns. Soros, for example, gave a total of $1 million to the Florida Democratic Party in 2014, while Adelson and Griffin gave $2 million combined to the Florida Republican Party that year, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics.
By donating money to the parties, they were effectively boosting Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist, as the parties were more heavily involved in financing the candidates that year.
Florida's gubernatorial race is always a national priority for both parties, says Democratic political strategist Ben Pollara.
"We do our governor's races in years that are not divisible by four, so the results of the governor's race always have an impact on the presidential race coming down the road," Pollara said.
But in the past decade, it's become more common to see a large influx of money from national donors, campaign finance experts said. Their influence is exaggerated this year, when the national stakes are high and neither of the parties' nominees have the personal wealth to self-fund, as Rick Scott did in each of the previous contests.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor of law at Stetson University with an expertise in campaign finance, said the 2020 election also plays up the outsized interest by national donors.
The redistricting fight following the 2020 Census takes on added importance because Florida is expected to add two seats in Congress, according to a study earlier this year by Election Data Services Inc.
"Those people who are elected this year could have an enormous impact on the redistricting process in the state of Florida," she said.
In addition to courting large donors, Gillum has tapped individuals who give less than $200, according to the Times/Herald analysis. Since March, he's attracted about 90,000 small donors, raising about $3.3 million.
DeSantis has raised about half as much from about 38,000 small donors.
This puts DeSantis on par with former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Crist in small-donor contributions. Scott's 2014 campaign was largely funded by the Florida Republican Party and donors to his Let's Get to Work PAC, pulling barely $200,000 from 3,000 small donors.
All in all, the differences between the way Gillum and DeSantis have raised funds is reflective of their campaign styles in the "era of big donors," said Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
"DeSantis is a very different kind of candidate — he's been more nationalized himself," she said. "He hardly came to Florida in the primary. But from the get-go the Gillum playbook very much has reflected the Obama playbook in Florida with the small donors, [Bernie] Sanders also."