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Florida Man Turns State from Purple to Deep Red
How Ron DeSantis became governor of Florida, transformed the state's politics, and set himself up as a presidential contender—with a big assist from Democratic billionaires
The 2018 election was a turning point for Florida politics and for little-known congressman Ron DeSantis. While Democrats enjoyed a spate of victories that year in House races, including in Florida, DeSantis won the governor's race, and has been able to use that position to strengthen the Republican hold over Florida and to enhance his own political prospects. He is now the main challenger to Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and could conceivably become the next president of the United States.
His victory in 2018 was by no means foreseen. He was aided by an effective Republican organization. But he also received unexpected and unintended assistance from two Democratic billionaires, Tom Steyer and George Soros. They helped provide him with an opponent that he could beat—even in a year that favored Democratic candidates. It's a story of the untoward sway that individual billionaires hold over our campaign finance system.
As the campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor began in early 2018, the favorite was former congresswoman Gwen Graham, the daughter of former governor and senator Bob Graham. In 2014, Graham had been one of the few Democrats to unseat a Republican incumbent in a Tallahassee district. Her main opponent, it appeared, was former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, a multimillionaire who would spend $29 million on his campaign. Another opponent was Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who, with an August 28 election pending, was running fourth in one mid-July poll with only seven percent of the vote. He was given little chance of winning.
Gillum was an effective speaker. An African-American, he was also running as the “progressive” candidate by championing Medicare for All, the abolition of the United States Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), and, perhaps most important of all for what was to come, the impeachment of Donald Trump. Gillum's candidacy caught the eye of hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, a key figure in the Democracy Alliance, a super-wealthy group that sought to boost and shape the Democratic Party.
In 2013, Steyer had established his own group, NextGen, to advocate on climate change and aid political candidates. In October 2017, Steyer started another group, Need to Impeach, and launched a $10 million television campaign to impeach Donald Trump. (This was well prior to Trump's attempt to use American aid to Ukraine to his own personal political benefit.) Based on constitutional grounds that had failed to sway Democratic officials, this campaign reflected Steyer's opposition to Trump's policies and person. It would become his preoccupation, and he later announced that he would not donate to any Democrat who did not support impeachment.
Steyer told The New York Times that he liked Gillum because “he’s a fierce gun control person, he’s been a climate champion. He’s called for the impeachment of the president.” Other candidates had similar stances on gun control and better records on climate change, but what probably stood out for Steyer was Gillum's support for impeachment. As a Tallahassee official, moreover, Gillum had backed a coal-fired power plant. The only other factor that may have swayed Steyer was that Gillum was, in his words, a “young African-American.”
Starting in July 2018, Steyer poured $1.4 million into Gillum's primary campaign. George Soros, a Democracy Alliance colleague, joined these efforts and pumped $700,000 into Gillum's PAC. Steyer also put NextGen to work rounding up voters for Gillum. With money for television, Gillum surged in the polls. On the eve of the primary election, he stood second to Graham, and on election day he edged her out by three percentage points. Without the intervention of Steyer and Soros, it's fair to say that Gillum would not have won the primary.
The early favorite in the Republican primary race was former congressman and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam. But DeSantis pulled ahead in the polls in March, aided by an endorsement from President Trump. In his ads, DeSantis played up Trump's support. In one late July spot that received widespread attention, DeSantis was seen showing his toddler daughter how to build a wall with blocks and how to say “Make America Great Again” as well as reading Trump's Art of the Deal to his four-year-old son.
DeSantis bested Putnam by twenty points in the primary, but potentially faced a stiff test in the general election. While Trump was popular among Florida Republicans, he was not popular with independents and, of course, with Democrats. In the initial post-primary polls, Gillum consistently ran ahead of DeSantis. But Gillum had some severe weaknesses that hadn't seemed to bother either Steyer or Soros or Democratic primary voters but would cost him the election.
The first was Tallahassee and Leon County's crime rate under Gillum, which was higher than that of any Florida city and county; DeSantis and the Republicans would highlight that fact in their ads. The second was Gillum's extreme positions on ICE, Medicare for All (which entailed large tax increases), and Trump's impeachment (which was not yet popular except among partisan Democrats). Third, and most important, was the cloud of corruption swirling around Gillum, which was very well known in the state and national political circles before his primary win.
In June 2017, Floridians had learned from grand jury subpoenas that the FBI had been investigating corruption in the Tallahassee government while Gillum was mayor. Gillum's brother and an old friend who had served as his campaign treasurer were reportedly under scrutiny, and the FBI had interviewed Gillum himself. Gillum, it was suggested, had received favors from FBI agents posing as developers soliciting city business, including a luxurious trip to Costa Rica and $1,000 in Hamilton musical tickets during a trip to New York. Gillum denied that he was himself under investigation. He claimed ignorance about the Hamilton tickets and stated that he paid cash for the $1,400 a night Costa Rica hotel stay.
All this information was widely reported before the primary. As Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, told the New York Times the day after the primary, “I don’t think anybody expected Mayor Gillum to be the nominee, but now he is, and all of this stuff is going to come under really close scrutiny.”
DeSantis, the Republican National Committee, and the Republican Governors Association ran repeated ads highlighting Gillum's ties to the corruption inquiry. Gillum denounced the ads and threatened to take legal action against the stations that ran them. He charged that in raising this issue, the Republicans playing the race card against him. “The goal is obviously to use my candidacy as a way to reinforce, frankly, stereotypes about black men,” he said.
On the basis of polls, it looked in early October as though Gillum, with the aid of over ten million dollars from Steyer, might pull through and win the election. But two weeks before the November election, another shoe dropped in the corruption inquiry: the Florida Ethics Commission had begun an inquiry of its own. Materials handed over to the commission by Gillum's former campaign treasurer included text messages and emails from Gillum that suggested he was aware that one of the agents posing as a developer was paying for the Hamilton tickets. “Awesome news about Hamilton,” Gillum texted his friend who had texted him the developer, “and the crew have tickets for us.”
Gillum played down the revelation. “We got 99 issues, and ‘Hamilton’ ain’t one of them,” he said. But the texts and emails raised more general questions about Gillum's integrity and cast a long shadow over the last two weeks of the campaign. When DeSantis edged out Gillum, the corruption charges against Gillum proved decisive. “A substantial portion of the electorate do not like politicians who have a reputation of being in it for themselves,” Jon Ausman, the former Democratic state committeeman and former chair of the Leon County Democratic Party—and a donor to Gillum's campaign—told the Tallahassee Democrat in its post-election analysis.
It's likely that Gwen Graham would have won the election. That's my opinion, but it's also shared by Florida political commentators. Writing last year for Florida Politics, Joe Henderson speculated that Graham would have won. “She likely would have run a better campaign than Gillum,” he wrote. “And while Donald Trump endorsed DeSantis, it’s worth remembering that independent voters decide these races, and Trump had big issues there. The odds are good that Graham would have beaten DeSantis. Had that happened, Florida would likely have remained a purple state instead of the crimson-hued place it is today.”
If Steyer and Soros had not stepped in to rescue Gillum's failing primary campaign, then, Graham would likely have been the Democratic candidate for governor. Steyer and Soros, who can afford armies of consultants and advisors, must have known about Gillum's vulnerabilities as a candidate—and if they didn’t, they should have. These weaknesses were reported not only in Florida newspapers and television, but in the New York Times and Politico. But the two billionaires decided to tip the scales in favor of Gillum.
Gillum himself has not fared well in the aftermath of his defeat. Three years ago, Gillum was found by police in a Miami Beach hotel room with a man who had overdosed from drugs, along with remnants of the drugs. Gillum, who according to the police was too drunk to talk to them about what had happened, later underwent treatment for alcohol abuse and depression. He is about to go on trial in a federal court in Leon County on charges that go back to his time as mayor—including lying to FBI agents in 2016 about his New York trip and fraudulently soliciting around $57,000 in political contributions. Gillum has pleaded not guilty. “I am unequivocally innocent of the gross allegations being made against me,” he wrote.
If found guilty, Gillum could end up in jail on these charges. DeSantis, who, if not for the the intervention of Steyer and Soros, might not have been elected governor, could end up as the next president of the United States.
John B. Judis is author of The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, Socialism and, with Ruy Teixeira, the forthcoming Where Have All the Democrats Gone?