The race to become the next governor of Florida is among the most heated contests of the upcoming midterms. It may also be the most emblematic of the national political climate in 2018. Democrat Andrew Gillum is an unabashed progressive, supporting universal healthcare, higher corporate taxes and abolishing ICE “in its current form.” Republican Ron DeSantis has built his entire campaign around his allegiance to President Trump, right down to the xenophobia. On Sunday night, they debated for the first time, and as expected, it was pretty contentious. Gillum, the current mayor of Tallahassee, and DeSantis, a former three-term congressman, sparred over everything from climate change to gun control to how the president’s rhetoric is affecting children. Trump deemed DeSantis the winner shortly after the debate concluded.
Ron @RonDeSantisFL DeSantis had a great debate victory tonight against Andrew Gillum, a mayor who presides over one of the worst run, and most corrupt, cities in Florida. Ron will build on the great job done by Governor Rick Scott. Gillum will make Florida the next Venezuela!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2018
Trump’s tweet followed the proud tradition of being literally the opposite of truthful. From beginning to end, Gillum was calm, collected and specific in his responses while DeSantis was as fidgety, evasive and generally unsure of how to present himself, both physically behind the podium and in his responses.
A telling moment came when DeSantis was asked whether he believes Trump is a good role model for America’s youth. The question was in response to a bizarre campaign ad in which DeSantis attempts to prove his loyalty to the president by essentially brainwashing his young children with a pro-Trump propaganda. DeSantis responded to the question by touting Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
“I’m confused by the question,” Gillum said after DeSantis finished. Moderator Jake Tapper clarified that the question was about “whether or not he thinks President Trump is a good role model for the children of Florida.”
“That’s what I thought,” Gillum replied, to laughter, before answering the question himself. “No, he’s not,” he said. “Donald Trump is weak, and he performs as all weak people do. They become bullies. Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte. He’s trying out to be the Trump apprentice. At every turn he’s tweeting him.”
This was the moment of the debate for me: @AndrewGillum gives the PERFECT reaction to DeSantis' weird answer about Trump being a role model for kids. Perfect. And hilarious. #FLGovDebate pic.twitter.com/wP608iIxIA
— Tommy Christopher (@tommyxtopher) October 22, 2018
Race has played an overlarge factor in the battle to become Florida’s next governor, and the issue was raised Sunday night by Tapper. The day after Gillum, who is black, won the Democratic primary, DeSantis called him “articulate” and “charismatic” while imploring Floridians not to “monkey this up” by voting for him. DeSantis denied the comment was racially motivated, but it’s been hard to ignore the role xenophobia has played in his campaign. He’s spoken at multiple conferences organized by a far-right activist who has promoted racist views and, as Tapper pointed out, he accepted campaign money from someone “who called President Obama the N-word.” When asked to address concerns voters may have over his record, DeSantis brought up Israel (again), touted his military service and argued that his questionable conference appearances were justified because a Medal of Honor recipient was also present.
Gillum wasn’t having it. “The congressman let us know exactly where he was going to take this race the day after he won the nomination,” he said. “The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all. He has only continued through the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin. The truth is that I am black. I have been black all my life. So far as I know, I will die black.”
He "let us know exactly where he was going to take this race the day after he won the nomination, the 'monkey up' comment said it all."
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) October 22, 2018
“The only color the people of the state of Florida care about is the blue-green algae flowing out of the east and west side of this state,” Gillum continued. “They deserve a governor who is going to protect the environment after 20 years of environmental degradation.”
When Tapper pressed the candidates on climate change, DeSantis said he doesn’t want to be an “alarmist” while criticizing Gillum for wanting to implement a “California-style energy policy.” Once again, Gillum took DeSantis to task. “I’m not sure what is so ‘California’ about believing the state of Florida ought to lead in solar energy,” he said. “We’re known as the Sunshine State. At the very least, what we can do is be a global leader here. We got to teach the other 49 states what to do and what it means to have a state that leans into the challenges of the green economy and builds one, and at the same time builds an economy that lasts. I’m proud that the same week that Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, I broke ground in my city on a 120-acre solar farm, tripling the amount of solar energy we produce. We are prepared to lead, have done so in my city and will do so for the state.”
As Gillum spoke, DeSantis stared at the camera awkwardly while trying to intimate a smile.
Democrat Andrew Gillum on climate change: “What Florida voters need to know is that when they elect me governor they are going to have a governor who believes in science, which we haven't had for quite some time in this state.” #FLGovDebate https://t.co/2k8aILlYfk pic.twitter.com/cHGLYyVYYl
— CNN (@CNN) October 22, 2018
Gillum was similarly unapologetic about gun control, which, like climate change, is an issue of particular importance to voters following the shooting at Parkland, Florida’s, Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year. “We’re prepared to stand up to the NRA,” Gillum said on Sunday. “They sued me. They drug me through court for two years, all because we said we would not allow guns to be shot in a city park. Radical. That you cannot shoot guns in a city park where our kids play and our families picnic. That’s why people are so incensed by this, because common sense and decency seem not to be able to prevail in this conversation.”
Advocating for gun control as strongly as Gillum has in a state as purple as Florida may seem like a political risk. Conventional wisdom holds that candidates should move to the center to win over moderates, but Gillum has remained entrenched in his progressive values, as have an increasing number of Democratic candidates running for office around the country. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) has used a similar strategy in Texas to make his Senate race against Ted Cruz closer than anyone could have imagined. Trump has recently accused both Democrats of trying to turn their states into Venezuela. Though it’s unclear if O’Rourke’s national popularity will be enough to unseat a Republican in Texas, Gillum appears poised to turn the Florida Governor’s Mansion blue. A CNN poll released Sunday has him leading DeSantis by 12 percentage points, a gap that would have shocked those who months ago believed Gillum was too far left to win the Democratic primary.
NEW CNN Florida gov numbers:
— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) October 21, 2018
Judging by their debate performances on Sunday night, it wasn’t hard to understand why Floridians seem to prefer Gillum.