In last weekend of race for Florida governor, it feels like more than a midterm

Published November 5 2018
Updated November 5 2018

At some point, it became clear that this election would be different.

When organizers pulled out stops they normally save for presidential campaigns, when a U.S. Senate contest cost nearly $100 million, when a worldwide pop star who has never lived in Florida endorsed a candidate on Instagram, it certainly began to feel different.

And by Sunday afternoon, 4.8 million Floridians had voted early, state reports said. That number is more than 50 percent higher than the early vote total in the last midterm election in 2014. It’s almost 80 percent of the entire vote count in 2014.

Days before the second anniversary of the election of President Donald Trump, Democrats say they have a chance to change the country this time around. Republicans warn of the same.

Both parties used that rhetoric over the weekend in efforts to squeeze the last drops of energy out of their bases.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate, former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, spent Saturday night with the biggest endorser in his campaign, Trump himself.

"A vote for any Democrat this November is really a vote to put extreme, far-left politicians in charge of Congress and to destroy your jobs, slash your incomes, undermine your safety and put illegal aliens before American citizens," Trump warned.

Republican attorney general candidate Ashley Moody echoed that.

"Tuesday, it’s all on the line."

Saturday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum shared stages with celebrities including Jimmy Buffett and Common. "There are better days ahead," Buffett promised. Gillum also nabbed an endorsement on social media from Rihanna. The pop star from Barbados — one of the world’s biggest music stars — posted on Twitter and Instagram on Sunday, telling followers to vote for Gillum and for Amendment 4, which would allow most felons to register to vote.

Organizers tied together Gillum and the ballot question, both of which have drawn national interest from liberals.

At a "Souls to the Polls" rally Sunday in St. Petersburg, Service Employees International Union Florida organizer Jabaar Edmond said that Amendment 4 broadened voter interest this year and that interest likely buoyed Gillum in his upset primary win.

"I haven’t seen such a united issue," he said.

As volunteers in the predominantly black crowd ate hot dogs and waited for hourly shuttles to polling places on the last day of early voting, Pinellas Urban League Guild president Loretta Thompson said such efforts are more common in presidential election years. Energy is higher now, she said, due to the "harsh treatment" of people of color and immigrants.

"It’s blatant; it’s in our face," she said.

Speakers at the event without fail emphasized the gravity of Tuesday’s vote.

"There’s a lot at stake. You know all about it," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, who is up for re-election.

Rev. Watson Haynes, president of the Urban League, which organized the nonpartisan event, said it "looks like the flavor of the whole nation can change."

That’s what Republicans say everyone should fear.

DeSantis, U.S. Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Cabinet candidates said at the Saturday rally that this year’s election is crucial for the state’s safety and prosperity.

Trump upped the ante, warning of dire personal consequences should Republicans come out with fewer votes Tuesday. The president spent at least as much time, if not more, bashing Gillum — "a radical socialist" — and Scott’s opponent, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson — who is "falling asleep" — as he did praising DeSantis and Scott.

As of Sunday afternoon, 40.8 percent of ballots cast were by registered Republicans, and 40.2 percent were by Democrats.

The razor-thin margin came after a Saturday on which Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Orange, the state’s biggest "blue" counties, reported their highest one-day early voting totals of the campaign.

"I’d rather be us than them," tweeted Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

That might be good news for Democrats, based on 2014. That year, early votes broke toward registered Republicans by three percentage points, and Scott won re-election by one point.

But in 2016, early votes broke slightly toward Democrats, and Trump still won by a point.

Today, DeSantis will travel with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Lara Trump, wife of the president’s son Eric, to five stops across Florida: Jacksonville, Orlando, Vero Beach, Clearwater and Fort Walton.

Gillum will attend a rally at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee with celebrities Diddy, Tiffany Haddish and DJ Khaled.

Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report, which also used information from the Miami Herald.