Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum scored a stunning upset in Florida’s crowded Democratic gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, becoming the first black nominee for governor in the state’s history.
Gillum supporters at the Hotel Duval in Tallahassee chanted Gillum’s “Bring it home!” campaign slogan on Tuesday night as returns showed him edging former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who was considered the front runner for most of the race.
“This is not my moment. This is our moment,” Gillum, 39, told a cheering crown shortly before 10 pm.
He touched on themes of his primary campaign, promising to expand Medicaid, reform the state’s criminal justice system and spark an economy where people “don’t have to work more than one job” to get by.
“We are going to unite this state in ways that are unparalleled in the history of Florida,” Gillum said.
Gillum will face Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Jacksonville-area congressman whose endorsement by President Donald Trump helped propel him to a blowout victory over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the GOP primary.
The race presents a clear contrast between the conservative DeSantis and unabashed liberal Gillum, who has called for Trump’s impeachment.
Graham, daughter of former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, led in several late polls, though Gillum’s campaign released an internal poll last week that showed him ahead.
In the most expensive Democratic primary in Florida history, Gillum was outspent by his four Democratic rivals and plagued by low polling numbers for most of the campaign. But he got late boosts from an endorsement by Vermont Sen. and progressive icon Bernie Sanders, a get-out-the-vote effort in black communities and financial and organizational help from liberal megadonors George Soros, Tom Steyer and others.
The five Democratic candidates and their affiliated committees spent more than $100 million through last Thursday. Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine spent $37.7 million, billionaire Palm Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene $34.8 million, Graham $16.6 million and Winter Park businessman Chris King $7.8 million.
Gillum’s campaign and an affiliated committee spent about $6.7 million.
“Money doesn’t vote. People do. And if we show up, we win,” Gillum said during a Saturday rally in predominantly black Riviera Beach. He reminded the crowd that, “with your vote, you have the opportunity to put at the top of our ticket on the Democratic side, for the first time in the history of the state of Florida, a person of color to carry us into the Nov. 6 election.”
While Gillum’s own campaign was low-budget, he benefited from more than $1 million in spending by an outside group called the Collective Super PAC and from a combined expenditure of $3.5 million late in the race from People For the American Way and other liberal groups. Steyer and Soros also kicked in a combined $800,000 during the final weeks to Gillum’s Forward Florida Committee.
Gillum was helped by an Aug. 1 endorsement from Sanders and appearances with Sanders at rallies in Tampa and Orlando on Aug. 17.
And Gillum’s low polling numbers for most of the campaign allowed him to avoid being the target of negative advertising. Graham was attacked by her rivals and by outside groups, including the Collective Super PAC, for breaking with congressional Democrats on a few issues, such as voting for the Keystone Pipeline or to ease some Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Levine and Greene attacked each other in mailers and TV ads.
Even when Gillum’s poll numbers were low, crowds of party activists appeared more energized by Gillum than by the other candidates at Democratic events.
“Regardless of the big money spent, Andrew was connecting with people,” said state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, who endorsed Gillum shortly after he entered the race in May 2017. “This is an incredible day for Floridians. Andrew Gillum will win the governor’s race and be a ground-breaking governor.”
Democrats have not won a Florida governor’s race since 1994, but state Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said at Gillum’s victory celebration that he’s optimistic about the party’s chances with Gillum as the standard-bearer.
“The last two governor’s races were decided by less than two percentage points and diverse demographics is what’s going to win this race,” Alexander said. “The Trump-DeSantis base is very small. And Andrew has diverse demographics completely.”
Karen Woodall, a Tallahassee lobbyist for services helping many lower income Floridians, said Gillum’s candidacy gives many disenfranchised Floridians a reason to vote. He also can appeal to voters across ages, races and genders, she said.
“There are a lot of people who have seen no reason to vote, because they felt nothing was going to change,” Woodall said. “But Andrew excites people. He’s going to have young people, African-American voters, Hispanics and white voters on his side.”
In Palm Beach County, Gillum was barely edging Graham in nearly complete returns, with Levine running third and Greene, the hometown candidate, in fourth with about 14 percent.
Gillum beat Graham by more than a 2-to-1 margin in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are the state’s three largest counties.
GateHouse Florida reporter John Kennedy contributed to this story.