Locked in a fierce re-election battle with Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Nelson has been outspent four-to-one and trails narrowly in polls. Scott has tarred him in a barrage of TV ads as too old, too partisan and too Washington to deserve a fourth Senate term.
But now, Nelson has in Gillum a 39-year-old, black progressive Democratic ticket-mate expected to drive November turnout among minority voters and younger Floridians, cohorts not naturally drawn to the 75-year-old senator whose political career began in 1972.
“Absolutely, Bill Nelson will get an edge because of Gillum,” said Shane Rogers-Mauro, with Indivisible South Florida, a progressive advocacy group whose statewide organization endorsed Gillum in the primary.
“Rick Scott already is not popular with Democrats, and with a lot of independents. But Gillum will bring more and more minority voters into the election in November, and they’ll also vote for Nelson,” he said.
The Scott campaign, however, said it isn’t worried about a surge of black Democratic voters.
A post-primary memo from Scott campaign manager Jackie Schutz Zeckman cast doubt about any signs of a Democratic blue wave, noting that 100,000 more Republicans cast ballots in Tuesday’s contests.
Scott’s rout of his Republican primary opponent, Rocky De La Fuente, is another indicator of the governor’s support, said spokesman Chris Hartline.
“Rick Scott received more votes than any U.S. Senate candidate in Florida history,” Hartline said. “We are confident that the excitement is there to elect Rick Scott and send do-nothing Bill Nelson home.”
Black voters, who overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates, comprise 13 percent of the state’s electorate. Like all Americans, they tend to vote in their largest numbers during presidential contests.
Midterm elections, like this year, typically see a sharp drop-off in overall turnout, particularly among minorities.
Analysts, though, think Gillum could change that, after making history as the first black Floridian nominated for governor by a major party.
Nelson has benefited before from a rise in minority voting, easily winning a third term in the Senate in 2012 when President Obama helped drive black turnout in his re-election campaign.
Nelson and Gillum made their initial, post-primary appearance together Friday at a Democratic “unity” rally in Orlando, featuring the party’s statewide contenders and the four gubernatorial rivals the Tallahassee mayor defeated in winning the nomination.
“I am going to be there side by side with Andrew and we’re going to take this to victory,” Nelson told the crowd at a union hall. “We’re going to turn Florida around.”
Gillum also offered praise.
“Sen. Nelson is a stalwart to all of the things we believe,” Gillum said.
It’s likely the first of many events this fall where Nelson shares the spotlight with Gillum and, perhaps, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, Sean Shaw, son of the late Leander Shaw, the first African American to become chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
Carlie Waibel, a Nelson spokeswoman, said Nelson and Gillum share similar policy goals.
“Sen. Nelson and Mayor Gillum agree on strengthening our public schools, whereas Rick Scott gutted education. Sen. Nelson and the mayor can work together on expanding access to health care, too,” Waibel said, adding the pair see “eye-to-eye” on improving the state’s environment and economy.
But Nelson may also have to weigh how much he wants to partner with the progressive Gillum during the two-month campaign ahead.
While Gillum may move his policies closer to the middle in coming weeks, he has still called for impeaching President Donald Trump, creating a single-payer health system, legalizing marijuana and abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
“If Gillum is seen as ultra-left, Nelson will have to be careful about losing his appeal to more middle-of-the-road and conservative voters that he has always appealed to,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist.
“Minority voters and Gen X, millennials and Generation Z voters may be excited to come out and vote. But he also can’t risk losing mainstream voters to Scott,” she added.
Nationally, Democrats see a Nelson victory as key for the party to have any hope of regaining control of the U.S. Senate in the November election.
But the well-financed Scott, who already has spent almost $28 million to Nelson’s $6 million, has maintained a summer-long lead in most polls — although rarely by more than a couple of percentage points.
Scott, in his two gubernatorial races, did manage to draw black support — with the six percent who voted for him in 2010 doubling to 12 percent in his 2014 re-election over Democrat Charlie Crist, who was banking on strong black turnout which failed to emerge in that midterm contest.
This time around, however, Gillum’s candidacy could change that.
Tuesday’s primary results showed the Tallahassee mayor had his biggest victory margins in counties where black voting strength is highest — such urban counties as Miami-Dade, Broward and Duval, where he out-performed statewide second-place finisher Gwen Graham by two-to-one margins.
Also, Scott’s black support in his two campaigns for governor is viewed by many as being tied to his promises about rebuilding Florida’s economy following the recession and his job-creation accomplishments as chief executive.
But in the past two years, President Trump has inflamed racial divisions, said Salandra Benton, an AFL-CIO statewide community organizer from Brevard County.
With Gillum’s Trump-endorsed Republican opponent, Palm Coast Congressman Ron DeSantis, also accused of playing to racist stereotypes by calling Gillum “articulate” and urging voters not to “monkey this up,” black voters are even further motivated, Benton said.
“The conversation we’ll be having is that when people go to vote for Andrew Gillum, they’ll have to remember to vote for Bill Nelson, too,” Benton said. “There’s energy out there. People who had given up on the political process are now wanting to vote, because of what they see in Andrew.”