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Democratic governor would be a political tsunami in Florida

Democrats have so little influence in Tallahassee that special interests give vastly more money to Republicans because they belong to the party that can help them. That changes if Andrew Gillum wins.
Democrat Andrew Gillum (left) faces Republican Ron DeSantis (right) in the 2018 contest for Florida governor. [Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald | AP Photo/John Raoux]
Democrat Andrew Gillum (left) faces Republican Ron DeSantis (right) in the 2018 contest for Florida governor. [Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald | AP Photo/John Raoux]
Published Nov. 1, 2018
Updated Nov. 1, 2018

If Andrew Gillum beats Ron DeSantis for governor Tuesday — anything but a sure thing — it won't merely be the first time Democrats have won a governor's race in 24 years.

"It would be tsunami-like. An earthquake," said Hillsborough businesswoman Alex Sink, who barely lost her 2010 campaign to Rick Scott.

"A sea change," said Chris Korge, a Miami lawyer who is among the country's top Democratic fundraisers.

"A game-changer," said Democratic strategist Ashley Walker of Broward County, who helped Barack Obama win Florida in 2008 and 2012.

Of the many strange facets of Florida politics, one of the most striking is that the Sunshine State is so utterly purple-state competitive in presidential elections, but so dark red Republican when it comes to state government.

In the last five presidential elections, Democrats won two, Republicans won two, and they tied in the butterfly ballot election of 2000. But visit the Capitol in Tallahassee, far removed from most Florida voters, and you would think you're in Wyoming because the place is so Republican.

Democrats in America's biggest battleground state are virtually irrelevant in governing a state where Republicans hold the governor's mansion, both legislative chambers, and the three-other statewide offices: attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.

It's a vicious circle.

Winning campaigns in a state as big as Florida takes lots of money, and state elections overwhelmingly are funded by people or companies who want something out of state government.

Democrats have so little influence in Tallahassee that special interests give vastly more money to Republicans because they belong to the party that can help them. An individual or interest group who gives generously to Democrats is all but guaranteed to hear about it from the unhappy Republican leaders they can't afford to antagonize.

Potentially competitive legislative races usually aren't because the Republican candidate has four or five times more money to spend than the Democrat.

With the odds so stacked against them, many of the most qualified and strongest Democratic legislative prospects take a pass from running and disrupting their lives.

It becomes harder to build a bench of strong, future statewide candidates.

And it becomes harder to groom and maintain an effective and lasting corps of winning political strategists — the kind that Florida Republicans have had sprinkled all over the place in lobbying shops and government agencies. Many sharp Democratic consultants leave Florida after their candidate loses a big race.

"I had all these fantastic young people lined up to go into the governor's office me, but if you don't win, they need jobs. They leave," Sink lamented. "We've really depleted the political talent pool."

"When you've been losing for 20 years it's like a death spiral," she said.
The next governor will make thousands of appointments and hires — to state agencies, to advisory boards, and judgeships, including three Florida Supreme Court justices.

The next governor will have veto authority over the congressional districts drawn under the redistricting process.

The next governor will give his party's presidential nominee a leg up in 2020.

"In terms of importance for Democrats it would be as big as it gets in the history of Florida," said Korge. "Republicans have made the Democratic Party extremely irrelevant for 20 years, and Democratic governor would immediately make it extremely relevant in every aspect of politics."

Even if the GOP-controlled legislature blocked many of a Gov. Gillum's priorities, such as expanding Medicaid or significantly raising school funding, he would have the bully pulpit.

"The governor has the loudest voice in Florida," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

A Democratic governor would have the ability to promote his priorities to Floridians in a way none has since the late Lawton Chiles.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for everybody to see people need a higher living wage, better access to health care. They're going to see that's they key to the future and how you build a progressive, pro-business economy," said Miami Beach businessman and former gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine.

None of this is to imply that Gillum is likely to be Florida's next governor.

"It's super, super close," said Ashley Walker. "It could go either way."

It's usually super, super close in these big statewide races.

The drama keeps ending the same way when it's a non-presidential election.

Another Republican wins another governor's race. And anguished Florida Democrats wonder if they can sink any lower. Their death spiral continues.