Editorial: Florida’s much-watched governor’s race hinges on state issues

Once again all eyes turn to Florida.

November’s elections are vital for the control of Congress and the destiny of the Trump administration. But the nation also will be transfixed by the governor’s contest between the hard-right Republican worshiper of President Donald Trump and the unabashedly progressive Democrat who would be Florida’s first African-American chief executive.

It’s the matchup of America’s opposite poles, what Charles P. Pierce, writing in Esquire , calls “the clearest ideological choice that American politics has seen since Hoover-Roosevelt. At least.”

But for Floridians, it is foremost a battle over the kind of state we’re going to have.

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In the primary decided on Tuesday in a record turnout, the most avid Republicans and the most avid Democrats flocked to the most extreme of the candidates on their respective slates: Congressman Ron DeSantis, the “Make America Great Again” regular on Fox News; and Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who backs Medicare for all and Trump’s impeachment.

But those were the primaries, where only registered Republicans and Democrats took part; their rejections of the more centrist-leaning, establishment-backed candidates spoke volumes about Floridians’ dissatisfaction with politics as usual.

Left out of the primaries: the 27 percent of registered Florida voters who declare No Party Affiliation (NPA).

From here on out, those unaffiliated voters are key.

In the coming Nov. 6 general election, we can easily guess which way the 4.6 million registered Republicans and 4.8 million Democrats will lean. Endless questions will focus on enthusiasm and turnout. Which side will dominate in driving its base? In arousing first-time voters?

The wild card is those 3.5 million independents — and anyone else whose politics lie somewhere in the middle. Who will speak to them?

It took less than 24 hours for the tenor of this mammoth contest to be set. DeSantis, in a celebratory Fox News interview, stumbled into a racist dog whistle with regard to Gillum that had Democrats and progressives pouncing, and Republicans and conservatives pooh-poohing.

RELATED: DeSantis launches campaign against Gillum by telling Floridians to not ‘monkey this up’

Beyond the nastiness that this election seems sure to ignite, the candidate who hopes to capture the broadest swath of Florida voters had better speak to their most urgent concerns. And those concerns, according to a survey by Florida Atlantic University and USA Today Network released in June, are the economy, school safety, and the environment.

On the economy, which candidate is more likely to push not just for jobs, but for well-paying jobs? Who can speak convincingly about working toward an economy that lifts the greatest number of people and that diversifies beyond tourism and agriculture?

On schools, which candidate voices the better policies on gun safety and, equally important, on the quality of public education? Who will best rattle the Republican-controlled state government that’s strangled Florida’s public school districts with tight budgets and embarrassingly paltry teacher pay?

RELATED: Christie: 2018 election: Florida’s environment don’t get no respect, no respect at all

Who better understands the severe state of our environment: the red tide that’s choking marine life and tourism off the Southwest Florida coast, the toxic blue-green algae that’s sickening people of the Treasure Coast, the rising sea that poses nothing less than an existential threat to much of the state?

Who will ensure that documentary stamp revenue be spent on buying and preserving conservation and recreation lands, as 75 percent of voters demanded when approving 2014’s Amendment 1? Who will insist that the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund actually be spent on alleviating the deepening housing crisis, instead of raiding it to plug — and pad — the state budget?

In DeSantis and Gillum, we have a pair of 39-year-olds who are now darlings of their parties, fresh faces who entered their races as longshots, far behind the expected favorites. Other than that, they could hardly be more different.

Florida’s next governor should be the one who connects most convincingly with Floridians’ hopes for a safer, more prosperous, more environmentally conscious future in this state.

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