Democrat Andrew Gillum hopes for election in Sunshine State
Republicans fear race in Trump-backing Florida may be slipping out of their grasp
Florida Democratic governor candidate Andrew Gillum: running close against Republican candidate Ron DeSantis. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty
Here in the shadows of Tallahassee’s state capitol, one of the most closely watched elections in the country will play out this week.
Tallahassee, the little-known capital of the state of Florida, has found itself at the centre of national attention, as America once again looks to Florida as it decides which way to vote on Tuesday.
Focus is turning in particular to the race for governor – one of several close contests in the state. The senate race and up to six House contests are also too close to call.
Andrew Gillum (39), the mayor of Tallahassee, is hoping to become the first African-American governor in Florida’s history.
Like Stacey Abrams, the gubernatorial candidate in Georgia who hopes to become the country’s first female African-American governor, Gillum has attracted national attention. Former president Barack Obama campaigned with Gillum in Miami on Friday, while Floridian music legend Jimmy Buffet held a concert for the Democratic candidate on Saturday.
Here in Tallahassee, Patricia Zick is one of the many Tallahassee residents who believes that Gillum has what it takes. She was his English teacher in 10th grade at Gainesville High School. “Andrew joined my honours English class, despite the fact that he had been discouraged from joining. When he realised he had catching-up to do, he approached me and asked if I could give him extra tuition. I couldn’t believe a 15-year-old boy was asking for this.”
He was always a leader, he says. “He was bright. I remember him helping other students. He stood out. We were not surprised when he became involved in student politics, and eventually became the mayor.” Gillum became the first of his siblings to graduate from high school.
The contrast with his opponent Ron DeSantis could not be more stark. A year older than Gillum, DeSantis is a Yale and Harvard graduate and Fox News regular.
He entered national politics on the Tea Party wave eight years ago, becoming a member of Congress for Florida in 2012. In recent months he has closely aligned himself with Donald Trump, winning the president’s early endorsement.
He famously appeared in a television ad during the Republican primary contest reading Trump’s book Art of the Deal to a child. “Then Mr Trump said, ‘you’re fired.’ I love that part,” he says at one point. “Build the wall,” he tells his young son as he plays with this building blocks.
Polls show that the race is tight. While Gillum is likely to poll well in his home town, a few hours outside the city, much of Florida is Republican territory.
Though Barack Obama won Florida twice, Donald Trump won the state by a margin of 1.2 per cent in 2016.
But Republicans are increasingly worried that the senate race which they had hoped would offer an easy win for their party, could be slipping out of grasp.
Trump has visited the state twice in the last week – a measure of concern in Republican circles.
Republicans had been confident of picking up a senate seat. Bill Nelson, the current Democrat incumbent, is seen as one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators in the country. Now approaching 18 years in the US senate, his opponent Rick Scott – the current governor – has depicted his rival as a “do-nothing” senator, a portrayal that has chimed with some voters.
But Scott, who has poured millions of his own money into the race, has been facing renewed scrutiny of his own record as governor.
In particular, the environment has emerged as a last-minute issue in the election race in Florida, as the state struggles with a series of environmental crises that threatens to upend the local economy.
Driving a few hours west of Tallahassee, the evidence of the recent hurricane is everywhere. Local authorities are still working to clear roads and remove the debris of huge trees that were uprooted by Hurricane Michael, the category-four storm that ripped through the northwest part of the state last month. On the panhandle coast, towns like Panama City and Mexico City effectively lie in ruins having been hit by the full force of the storm.
In addition to the hurricane, Florida has been battling a phenomenon known as “red tide” which has seen its coastal waters swamped by algae, killing marine life and washing-up schools of dead fish onshore.
Faced with toxic gases, swimmers have been warned of the risks of swimming in the water and lifeguards are now wearing gas masks.
Tourism numbers are down, and Floridians are worried – many blaming Rick Scott who as governor, was responsible for cutting millions from state environmental agencies.
Opponents have now dubbed Scott as “Red Tide Rick” , accusing him of rolling back environmental protections for years.
While early polls had shown Scott with a significant lead, polls have tightened in recent weeks, as Scott’s environmental record has come under scrutiny.
Republicans are now being forced to grapple with an issue that barely made it on to previous election campaigns in Florida; climate change and the environment.
In one of the State’s tightest House races in southern Florida, Republicans have started running ads focusing on the environmental credentials of the Democratic candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, accusing her of accepting “dirty coal money.”
Voters are also been asked to vote on banning offshore drilling, one of 12 state constitutional amendments on the ballot on Tuesday.
As with many races around the country, the outcome of Florida’s various state and federal elections will come down to turnout. A key challenge for Democrats is ensuring that a strong urban vote will be enough to offset high turnout in rural areas which voted for Trump in big numbers in 2016.
Early voting data shows that four million votes have already been cast in Florida, the highest ever in a mid-term cycle. Calculating how this will shape the final result is more difficult – as in previous years, it appears that more Republicans have cast their votes early.
With Florida expected to be among the first wave of states to report on Tuesday night, it should quickly become clear if Democrats’ hoped-for blue wave breaks through in the Sunshine State.