Gillum raises profile — and cash — in Florida as DeSantis gets quiet
By MARC CAPUTO and MATT DIXON
09/04/2018 05:03 AM EDT
Andrew Gillum fell into money. Ron DeSantis fell off the radar.
In the wake of the racially charged atmosphere that kicked off the general election campaign for Florida governor, the two contenders headed in starkly different directions.
Gillum became a national figure overnight and was interviewed by and mentioned in the national media so frequently that his campaign had trouble tracking his mentions as the cash rolled in: $3 million between Election Day and Sunday, when the Florida Democratic Party’s first African-American nominee for governor appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “State of the Union” and MSNBC’s “AM Joy.”
On Wednesday alone, Gillum was mentioned so many times on TV that it gave him the commercial ad-time equivalent of $23.5 million nationally, $3.8 million in the state, his campaign estimated. And the Tallahassee mayor’s likeness was even included this weekend along with 50 black cultural and pop-star figures in the new cartoon video “Feels Like Summer” from the artist Childish Gambino.
In contrast, DeSantis — who won his GOP primary after leveraging his frequent Fox News appearances into a presidential endorsement — was barely on the air, while Gillum even put in an appearance of his own on Fox.
DeSantis, a congressman, gave just two interviews on the network to explain that he wasn’t using racist language when he said Wednesday that he didn’t want voters to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum. DeSantis also gave one local interview on Wednesday with Gray TV, which owns stations in Gainesville, Panama City and Tallahassee — and a radio interview Sunday with a New York talk show host, John Catsimatidis.
“Nationally, if a guy like Gillum is successful in winning a state like Florida,” DeSantis told Catsimatidis, “I think that’s going to start a movement, a far-left movement that’s going to spread through other states. And that’s going to lead into 2020. So there’s a huge amount of national implications here.”
DeSantis also said he was facing an “untraditional” candidate in Gillum. Another word for DeSantis to describe Gillum: unexpected.
DeSantis had planned to face Gwen Graham, a white woman, and was unprepared to face Gillum, according to a Republican with close ties to the campaign who said DeSantis “stepped on a rake” by making both a “monkey” reference and calling Gillum “articulate.”
“Ron was ready to be called a sexist, and the campaign had war-gamed for that. He wasn’t ready for being called a racist,” said the Republican, who didn’t want to be identified because he was discussing internal campaign matters. “He just didn’t know how to talk about it.”
Before the controversy could fade, a white supremacist group on Friday called Florida Democrats with a racist robocall mocking blacks and Gillum.
Gillum didn’t shy away from accusing DeSantis of intentionally using racially coded language that inspired the robocall, which DeSantis’ camp had denounced.
“On the day right after I secured the Democratic nomination, we had to deal with some of the dog whistles from my opponent,” Gillum said Sunday on "State of the Union” on CNN.
“What I don’t want this race to turn into is a race of name-calling,” Gillum said. “I want to make sure that we don’t racialize and, frankly, weaponize race as part of this process, which is why I have called on my opponent to really work to rise above some of these things. People are taking their cues from him, from his campaign and from Donald Trump. … And we saw in Charlottesville that that can lead to real, frankly dangerous, outcomes.”
The two events — DeSantis’ midweek statement and the robocall at week’s end — drove more media attention to Gillum. And that drove fundraising. His campaign said Gillum raised about $2 million through his campaign and political committee, Forward Florida. Many of the contributions were small-dollar donations, some of which started flowing after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Gillum, who had supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 over Sanders. Gillum was under consideration as a running mate on Clinton’s ticket, and he spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
The Democratic Governors Association chipped in another $1 million to Gillum. The Republican Governors Association said it is ready to spend at least $10 million to help DeSantis.
A poll commissioned by a Democratic operative and performed by a Democratic-leaning firm, Public Policy Polling, showed Gillum leading DeSantis 48 percent to 43 percent in a general-election matchup.
Before last Tuesday, DeSantis was better-funded and better-known than Gillum, but Gillum’s win and the ensuing controversy have started to change the equation.
Gillum’s team has been able to answer some of the biggest questions surrounding his campaign, most notably about whether he can win and whether he can raise money.
Gillum won a five-person primary full of self-financed opponents who raised much more money than he did. His efforts were hampered, in part, by an ongoing federal corruption probe into the city of Tallahassee’s Community Redevelopment Authority, which froze donors and momentum. But the money he raised in the first week was 42 percent of the total he had raised in 18 months on the campaign trail, a sum so low that many Democrats publicly questioned his viability and privately wondered whether their party's primary voters — and voters in the general election — were ready to pick their first African-American governor.
Because Gillum’s win was so unexpected, there's a sense of uncertainty over how to game out the DeSantis vs. Gillum matchup.
Some Republicans see an easy narrative win, casting Gillum as a corrupt Bernie Sanders-supported candidate who is too liberal for Florida. But others quietly fear that his energetic style and willingness to run as a much more progressive candidate than past Democratic nominees could turn out large numbers of low-propensity voters. One data point supporting that notion is the fact that at least a quarter of Democrats who voted before primary day had not voted in any of the past three elections.
Although both sides hype their advantages publicly, there a settling sense that, as of right now, the race is difficult to predict. Midterm elections in Florida have been a nightmare for Democrats who have seen their base voters — African-Americans, Hispanics and young people — disproportionately stay home while white Republicans and conservatives show up in force. Whether Gillum and the racial controversy that followed him can drive turnout is anyone’s guess.
“I would say it’s a dead tie right now. Republicans will be highly motivated to come out. Democrats the same,” said one GOP strategist. “Unforced errors may be what decides the race.”
The campaigns say they want to talk about the issues.
“The mayor’s focused on talking about affordable health care as a right for all, better wages and jobs and more public school funding,” said Gillum spokesman Geoff Burgan. “We plan to stay there between now and Nov. 6.”
DeSantis’ camp said the national media exposure for Gillum won’t help him in the long run as more reporters dig into his record in Tallahassee.
“We’re happy to do a national press tour to get applauded by liberal elites,” said Brad Herold, a DeSantis adviser. “We’ve spent the last week preparing for the general election and are excited about comparing his record to Ron’s.”