In Florida's kaleidoscopic politics, a window into America's future

Jayme Gershen/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Hannah Klein and William Joel Bravo go door to door last month in South Miami Heights for the organization NextGen America, speaking with homeowners about Democratic candidates. The state’s electorate is becoming younger and, like the nation, more diverse.
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Many of the threads running through our nation’s politics seem woven right into the fabric of Florida today. A marquee governor’s race features a Trump-like Republican versus a progressive African-American Democrat. Then there’s the growing significance of the Hispanic vote, the issue of guns in the wake of mass shootings, and the burgeoning activism of young people in a state that is growing more youthful but where retirees are far more reliable voters. The outcome here could tip control of Congress ­– with a Democratic Senate seat and as many as seven Republican-held House seats hanging in the balance – and has enormous implications for the next presidential race. In the governor’s race, Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, is the first African-American gubernatorial nominee in Florida history. Mayor Gillum's opponent, former Congressman Ron DeSantis, called him a “far-left socialist” for positions like support of “Medicare-for-all.” Infusing all the Florida contests is the politics of race, ethnicity, and gender. “It is the future of the country,” says veteran political analyst Susan MacManus. “This is the election to behold.”

Why We Wrote This

Florida isn’t just a potentially pivotal state in this fall’s election. It also has emerged as a kind of microcosm of the nation’s politics, including sharp racial and generational divides.

Yvette Batlle opens the door a crack and greets the young woman and man standing on her front step, clipboards in hand. Her initial suspicion melts into a smile.

For Hannah Klein and William Joel Bravo, paid canvassers for the liberal NextGen America, that’s half the challenge – getting people to open the door and engage.

Ms. Batlle is registered to vote, maybe as a Democrat – she’s not sure – and still hasn’t researched the candidates. But she’s certain of her No. 1 issue: health care. And she knows what she thinks of the president.

Why We Wrote This

Florida isn’t just a potentially pivotal state in this fall’s election. It also has emerged as a kind of microcosm of the nation’s politics, including sharp racial and generational divides.

“I believe that as a woman, it is my moral obligation to vote for anyone but Donald Trump,” says Batlle, a Cuban-American native of Miami who works as a paralegal.

President Trump isn’t literally on the ballot Nov. 6, but really, he is. Mr. Trump himself says so.

More broadly, so many of the threads running through our nation’s politics seem woven right into the fabric of Florida today: From a marquee governor’s race that features a Trump-like Republican versus a progressive African-American Democrat, to the growing significance of the Hispanic vote, to the issue of guns in the wake of mass shootings, to the burgeoning activism of young people in a state that is growing more youthful but where retirees are far more reliable voters. The Sunshine State, the nation’s biggest political battleground, is once again a kind of microcosm of the United States.

The outcome here could tip control of Congress ­– with a Democratic Senate seat and as many as seven Republican-held House seats hanging in the balance – and has enormous implications for the next presidential race.

When hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10, political attack ads kept running at first – a sign of the campaign’s intensity. The aftermath, with tens of thousands of voters’ lives severely disrupted, could be consequential in tight statewide races, given the Panhandle’s Republican lean.

The governor’s race in particular, which features Andrew Gillum (D) versus Ron DeSantis (R), has captured national attention: two near-Millennials locked in a pitched battle, the outcome of which will shape Florida politics for years to come. Whoever wins will preside over the post-2020-census, once-a-decade legislative redistricting. 

If you squint, the Florida governor’s race looks like a proxy version of former President Barack Obama-meets-Bernie Sanders versus Trump. Certainly, the race could provide important clues to the 2020 presidential election in a must-win state that narrowly went for Trump in 2016.

Brendan Farrington/AP
Florida Democratic nominee for governor Andrew Gillum participates in the Florida A&M University homecoming parade in Tallahassee, Fla. Just a month before Florida chooses a new governor, Ron DeSantis is hoping to rebound from his campaign’s lackluster start by bringing in the woman who helped President Donald Trump carry the state two years ago. The Republican candidate’s campaign events are transforming from subdued to lively, fundraising is picking up and the attack on Gillum is becoming more focused.

Infusing all the contests here is the politics of race, ethnicity, and gender – and to the extent that it mirrors America’s growing racial and ethnic diversity, Florida may well be a harbinger.

“It is the future of the country,” says veteran political analyst Susan MacManus. “This is the election to behold.”

A ‘woke’ Obama 2.0?

Mayor Gillum of Tallahassee seemed to burst out of nowhere when he won the gubernatorial primary Aug. 28.

With the barnstorming help of the democratic socialist Senator Sanders, support of two billionaires – Tom Steyer and George Soros – and a cadre of young and minority voters, Gillum took the nomination with just 34 percent of the vote. Now the hopes of Florida Democrats, locked out of the governor’s office for two decades, rest on his shoulders.

Gillum is the first African-American gubernatorial nominee in Florida history. If he can inspire Obama-level black turnout, percentage-wise, he could also help reelect three-term Sen. Bill Nelson (D), fighting for his political life in a contest against outgoing Gov. Rick Scott (R), and boost Democrats in competitive House races.

Like Obama, Gillum knows how to fire up a crowd. At the Miami-Dade County Democrats’ recent Blue Gala, Gillum had party elites on their feet as he confidently predicted victory.

“We’re gonna flip this country blue in 2020, and it’s gonna start right here,” said Gillum, who leads narrowly in the polls.

If Obama brought centrist impulses to his eight years in the White House, Gillum is a man of the left. He favors “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage, stricter gun laws, and a hike in education spending paid for by higher state corporate taxes.

When former Congressman DeSantis called him a “far-left socialist” who would “monkey up” Florida’s economy, Gillum heard a racial slur, and accused him of taking a page from Trump’s playbook. Gillum, who rejects the “socialist” label, has also gone toe-to-toe with Trump himself on Twitter.

At The Grio, a website geared toward African Americans, Gillum is a “Woke Obama 2.0” – i.e., more “aware” about issues of social and racial justice. While Obama attended elite private schools, Gillum is a product of public education, including historically black Florida A&M University. The son of a construction worker and school bus driver, and the fifth of seven children, he was the first in his family to finish high school.

A cloud looms over Gillum: an FBI investigation into lobbyists’ influence at City Hall. The mayor says he’s been told he’s not a target, but the probe is still red meat for his opponent. Gillum is also vulnerable over Tallahassee’s reputation for high crime.

Then there’s a more profound question: Is Florida, like neighboring Georgia, ready to elect its first black governor?

Maybe. Obama won the state twice (barely). But this is the governorship, and Florida is tricky. The north is Southern; the Ku Klux Klan has been on the rebound there in recent years. South Florida is a patchwork of Hispanic, Caribbean, and Northern US transplants. The state’s I-4 corridor, cutting across the middle, is the political swing region.

Gillum’s upset victory in the primary sent him into the general election as an unknown to many Floridians.

“I just don't think a lot of independent or Republican voters had a clue who he was,” says Brad Coker, the Jacksonville-based managing director of the Mason-Dixon Poll. He isn’t sure Florida is ready to elect an African-American progressive Democrat as their governor: “That may be a bridge too far today.”

Where Miami meets Venezuela

DeSantis and his running mate, state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, paint Gillum as a left-wing autocrat in the making. In south Florida, where voters with roots in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are a force, the strongman politics of those countries loom large.

At a meet-and-greet for the GOP ticket in the Miami suburb of Doral – known as “Doral-zuela” for its large Venezuelan population – Representative Nunez speaks of “the evils of socialism.”

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, chats with Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron during an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“This Hispanic community,” says Nunez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, “understands that Florida will not roll out the welcome mat for anyone who aligns themselves with Bernie Sanders and the likes of the radical left-wing socialism party.”

DeSantis, an Ivy League-educated Iraq War vet, builds on the theme, touting his 2017 congressional resolution urging sanctions against the regime of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. And he is sure to name-check Trump, whose endorsement in the primary was seen as critical to his upset victory over the GOP establishment favorite, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

“I have urged President Trump to be tough against Maduro,” says DeSantis, adding that “options need to be on the table,” including military assistance to Mr. Maduro’s opponents.

Not all “Doral-zuelans” see Trump as the answer to Maduro. In fact, some see in Trump the very authoritarian tendencies that have devastated their homeland. And they decry the Trump administration practice of sending Venezuelan asylum-seekers home.

“If you say it’s a murderous dictatorship, why are you deporting people there?” says Carlos Pereira, a Venezuelan immigrant and Democrat running for Doral City Council.

But DeSantis is all in with Trump. In a breakout ad during the primary, he used blocks to show his toddler daughter how to “build the wall,” and read “The Art of the Deal” to his four-month-old son.

After the campaign event in Doral, DeSantis bristles when this reporter asks about his alliance with Trump.

“I am my own man,” he says. “It’s kind of a media game: If you do something different, then, ‘Oh, DeSantis breaks with Trump.’ But then if you agree with him, they say, ‘Oh, all DeSantis does is agree with him.’ ”

Last month, DeSantis did cross Trump on Puerto Rico, after the president claimed Democrats had exaggerated the death toll from last year’s devastating hurricane. More than a million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, a significant voting bloc.

Ultimately, DeSantis portrays his alliance with Trump as a plus. As governor, “I’ll be able to walk into the Oval Office and talk to the president about Florida’s needs,” he says. “Andrew Gillum wants to impeach Donald Trump.”

Enter Tom Steyer

Indeed, Gillum does favor impeachment, though it’s not a talking point on the trail. But for Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who has been running a national “Need to Impeach” campaign since last year, Gillum represents the future of the Democratic Party.

“He has an ability to think strategically about issues, as well as from a moral standpoint,” Mr. Steyer says in an interview at the Biltmore Hotel before introducing Gillum at the Blue Gala.

Steyer notes Gillum’s stand against the National Rifle Association in the wake of high-profile mass shootings in Florida, including at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February and the Pulse night club in Orlando last year.

All told, Steyer plans to spend $8 million in Florida this cycle helping elect Democrats, more than in any other state. (Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun group is spending $2 million on Florida races.)

For now, Steyer has rebranded his “Need to Impeach” town halls as “Need to Vote,” and enjoys registering students himself as he strolls college campuses. Some 400,000 Floridians have signed his petition supporting impeachment, but of those, he says, almost two-thirds don’t normally vote in midterm elections.

Jayme Gershen/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Hannah Klein and William Joel Bravo go door to door for NextGen in South Miami Heights on Sept. 29, 2018, talking to Floridians about the race for governor and Congress.

“That’s 15,000 people per congressional district,” he says, “and you know how those can swing on 1,000 or 2,000 votes.”

Door to door, student to student

In south Florida alone, two GOP-held House seats are ranked as toss-ups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and in a wave election, another could flip. NextGen is active in all three districts.

Here in South Miami Heights, a Hispanic neighborhood of modest homes and incomes, moderate GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo faces a stiff challenge from former university administrator and Ecuador native Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Ms. Klein and Mr. Bravo, the NextGen canvassers, wield lists of registered voters, and go door-to-door hoping to make contact.

It’s hot and humid, and there’s no shade, but they’re young and upbeat. Their conversation with Batlle was encouraging, as was another with a Cuban immigrant named Teresa Gomez, who became a citizen a year ago and isn’t registered to vote. She intends to register as a Democrat, she tells Bravo in Spanish.

Over at Miami-Dade College’s Kendall campus, on the recent National Voter Registration Day, students set up “Carna-Vote” – food, games, prizes, a guy dressed up as school mascot “Finn” the shark, and lots of paper: voter registration forms, campaign literature, questionnaires, postcards.

The only table with a clear Republican tilt was for Maria Elvira Salazar, the GOP nominee to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R). It’s a high-profile House race, one that initially filled Democrats with confidence. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the 27th District by almost 20 percentage points, and it had stayed in Republican hands in recent years, it seemed, only out of love for longtime Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American and first Latina elected to Congress.

Then the Republicans nominated Ms. Salazar, a well-known correspondent on Spanish-language TV. The victor in the crowded Democratic primary, with only 32 percent of the vote, was former Clinton-era Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

Ms. Shalala, too, has a strong local profile; from 2001 to 2015, she was president of the University of Miami. As former HHS secretary, she can speak authoritatively about health care, a top concern for many in south Florida. But Shalala is in her late 70s, and doesn’t speak Spanish.

As the daughter of Cuban immigrants, Salazar may be a more natural fit for the 27th District, whose electorate is 57 percent Hispanic. At Carna-Vote, Miami-Dade College freshman Jose Arencibia says he’s making calls for Salazar, and asking people to post signs.

“I agree with a lot of what she has to say,” says the Cuban-born forensic science major, mentioning immigration. Salazar supports legal status for non-criminal undocumented immigrants – a less hard-line position than Trump’s.

Miami-based Fernand Amandi, Shalala’s pollster, acknowledges his client’s demographic challenge and the damage she sustained during the primary. But he insists Salazar’s somewhat hands-off approach to Trump isn’t fooling voters.

“They recognize that a vote for Maria Elvira Salazar, whether she runs to or from Trump, is a vote for Donald Trump,” says Mr. Amandi. 

Other political observers say Salazar is a force – and could win the 27th District even if Democrats win statewide, “A lot of times, it’s who can speak your language,” says Professor MacManus, recently retired from the University of South Florida, Tampa. “Party is less relevant.”

The young and the independent

Florida is famous for its sun-loving retirees. But the Sunshine State is getting younger – and that has political impact.

The youngest cohorts – Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z – now account for 52 percent of registered voters in Florida, according to data from the state. And with each succeeding generation, the share who register as “no party affiliation” is rising.

Millennials, aged 22 to 37, have now fully come into their own as a political force. And in Florida, 35 percent of them are independent, up from 30 percent of Gen X-ers. Among the youngest voters, 39 percent are independent, more than are Republican or Democrat.

Long term, that trend spells trouble for both major parties. Even now, it means the parties have to work harder to turn out their voters, especially in midterms. Older voters are more reliable; younger voters less so. People who register as independent are also less likely to vote than people who affiliate with a party.

Back at Carna-Vote, Nicole Rayon squeals with delight when she spins the wheel at the Engage Miami voter registration table, and wins a T-shirt. Ms. Rayon, a 19-year-old business major, says she’s a Democrat, but ask her about issues and she pauses: “To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to news.”

That, in a nutshell, is the Democrats’ challenge. They can win over young and minority voters, but they can’t force them to turn out.

Two days later, 5,000 people pack the University of Miami basketball arena to see former first lady Michelle Obama headline a rally for the group When We All Vote. The message: “Register – and then vote!”

Even though the group is nonpartisan, nobody is fooled. It’s a young, diverse crowd, and they’re there to see the most popular figure in the Democratic Party. T-shirts for Gillum, UnidosUS, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High dot the crowd. When Mrs. Obama takes the stage, the cheers are deafening.

But who knows if these young people will actually vote? They get busy, and can be hard to reach. They also don’t watch much TV, so traditional campaign ads don’t work. Social media is key, as is the personal outreach funded by Steyer, Mr. Soros, labor unions, and local Democratic committees.

On the Republican side, voter registration and turnout efforts are less visible, but they’re happening – in local party committees, houses of worship, neighbor-to-neighbor. The Koch brothers-funded Libre Initiative conducts voter outreach in the Hispanic community, and the related Libre Institute runs citizenship and English classes for new immigrants. Guest speakers talk up free-market economics and limited government.

Democrats burst with exasperation over their side’s perceived failure to get organized with Florida’s crucial Hispanic population, now more than 16 percent of the state’s registered voters. Cuban-Americans – long the state’s dominant Hispanic bloc – are no longer overwhelmingly Republican, and Florida’s fast-growing Puerto Rican population, now equal in size to the state’s Cuban-Americans, leans Democratic.

Newly arrived Puerto Ricans, many of whom settled around Orlando after hurricane Maria, are still getting their lives in order and aren’t necessarily focused on the November midterms. But 2020 could be another story.

Sid Dinerstein, what’s your prediction?   

In March 2016, Sid Dinerstein, the former chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, told me with absolute certainty that Trump was the next president of the United States. I marveled at his confidence.

So, what’s your prediction for November? I asked Mr. Dinerstein recently. “Too soon to say,” he replied. But he’s certain the Supreme Court fight, involving sexual-assault allegations against now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, helped the Republicans.

“Politically, the Kavanaugh show was a gift that Republicans could never give ourselves,” he says.

Nonpartisan analysts tend to agree. Suburban women, riled up over the allegations against the judge, were already energized against Trump in a way that has helped Democrats all year. But Republicans who may have sat out the elections – including never-Trumpers and moderates – are now more united.

That could help both DeSantis against Gillum, and Governor Scott in his close race to knock out Senator Nelson. Hurricane Michael could also give a political boost to Scott, if his performance on the ground as the state’s chief executive is deemed successful.

Florida’s strong economy should help Scott and other Republicans on the ballot, but so many other factors are at play – not least Trump. The president’s job approval in Florida has sunk from 56 percent when he took office to 49 percent.

Trump visited Orlando last week and the Panhandle Monday, and another visit to the state before Election Day is entirely possible. But whom would it help?

Maricel Cobitz, president of Federated Republican Women of North Dade, which sponsored the DeSantis meet-and-greet in Doral, jumps at the question: “Tell Mr. Trump to come to Miami!”

Amandi, the Miami Democratic pollster, is just as certain: “The more Donald Trump, the better it is [for Democrats].”

In 2000, the Bush v. Gore presidential election hinged on just 537 Florida votes. Today, the Sunshine State is still all about nail-biters.

On Nov. 6, says MacManus, we could well see some “classic Florida 1 percenters.”

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