Florida voters are still casting ballots in the race for governor, but already some liberals can’t help but ask: Could Democrat Andrew Gillum be their answer to 2020?
The 39-year-old African-American mayor of Tallahassee is in a dead heat with white 40-year-old pro-Trump Republican Ron DeSantis. Gillum lit up national progressives by pitching voters on an unabashedly progressive platform, including Medicare-for-all, environmental protections, and criminal justice reform. He picked up Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) endorsement early in the primary and built on that momentum.
Gillum rejected the strategy Democrats have used for years in red or purple states. Instead of racing to the center in hopes of peeling off centrist Republicans (and often losing by a few points anyway), he’s taking the path the new progressive left craves.
“I believe that we are running as the most unapologetically progressive candidate because I believe that is how we are going to win the state of Florida — by leaning into who we are and not against who we are,” Gillum said on a debate stage.
“We should never apologize for our progressive values. When we pretend to be center right in general elections, we lose,” he said in a tweet. “I’m sick of losing.”
The Florida race has become a 2020 presidential test case for Democrats, pitting a new left candidate against a Trump ally in a big, diverse swing state Donald Trump won in 2016. Gillum has an even more literal link — he’s a candidate whom liberals love to drop into the 2020 speculation game.
wow! Forget Florida although I have lots of family there. Save the nation! #Gillum2020— Mimi Negron (@mimi_hern) August 29, 2018
Gillum’s campaign spokesperson Johanna Cervone responded to a question about the 2020 buzz saying, if he wins Tuesday, his “focus and priority will be Florida.”
The fact that progressives are musing, even jokingly, about a candidate who is still running in a 2018 election (and who is not guaranteed to win on Tuesday) shows how much they want not only to beat Trump in 2020 but to remake the Democratic Party to do it.
Gillum is cool
Gillum has set himself apart from of a handful of progressive stars lighting up the left this year. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, 29, and Beto O’Rourke of Texas, 46, won over progressives by jumping into what looked like doomed races and running as skeptics of the establishment and carriers of the progressive cause.
And they’re just plain cool.
Democratic presidential candidates have to energize a diverse group of constituencies, more so than Republicans, whose party is much more homogeneous. The cool factor has helped the most successful modern Democratic presidents transcend the different groups. John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton (believe it or not, young millennials, he was cool in his day, even if people are reluctant to be around him these days), and Barack Obama all had it.
Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, a powerful establishment Democrat who is a close ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a primary victory so stunning it caught her own party by surprise.
She earned a Sanders endorsement early, and she’s gone on to campaign alongside him for other liberal candidates. She likes to speak for a new generation of young voters she urges to step up: “For young people, the thought of maintaining the status quo for our entire lives is unthinkable,” she tweeted recently. “More than anyone else, WE will have to live in the future our politicians are creating. And the one they’re making now is completely unsustainable. Together we can change that.”
Young people are listening. Ocasio-Cortez thrills her supporters with charisma, including on Twitter where she brushes off haters with modern finesse.
In one popular exchange, she responds to conservative criticism that her populist values were insincere because she was photographed in an expensive suit for Interview magazine. She shot back that you don’t get to keep the clothes!, concluding: “Get used to me slaying lewks because I am an excellent thrift shopper.”
O’Rourke is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. He’s still down in almost every poll against Cruz, who is loved in his home state, but regardless of how he performs Tuesday, he’s inspired liberals nationwide for his brash campaign.
O’Rourke is undeniably cooler than the incumbent. NBA superstar LeBron James and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich have sported “Beto” hats at practice and Texas games. In his 20s, O’Rourke was the bassist in a punk band. A video of him skateboarding at a Whataburger after one of his debates against Cruz has gone viral. Even several attempted burns by the Texas GOP team led to this reaction:
Based on the reaction to our tweets we can confirm that Beto is in fact going to receive 100% of the vote from Buzzfeed contributors, out of state liberals, and people who use the word "rad." We feel very owned :'(— Texas GOP (@TexasGOP) August 29, 2018
Gillum, a telegenic man with a clear, sure voice that could fit in on public radio, recently turned to his opponent, DeSantis, during a debate and knocked him down so casually and so authentically that a clip of it went viral. “Now, I’m not calling Mr. Desantis a racist,” Gillum said. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” It was a mic drop moment.
While all three of these stars are popular, Gillum is emerging as the big national hope. If he’s victorious, he’ll have shown he can win a big, diverse swing state by carrying the progressive flag.
Ocasio-Cortez comes from a very liberal district, which doesn’t give her a chance to show whether she has broad appeal. O’Rourke, who was the early progressive breakout star, has a tougher climb to victory. As political scientist Philip Klinkner joked on Twitter: “Tired: Beto 2020. Wired: Gillum 2020.” (If Beto wins, he’ll surely be right back alongside Gillum.)
Trump carried Florida with 49 percent of the vote (to Clinton’s 47.8 percent), clocking the state’s 29 electoral votes to his column. As governor, Gillum could help boost a Democratic candidate; as the candidate, he could, potentially, carry it outright in a critically important state.
The 2016 primary wounds are barely healed
Democrats aren’t shy about telling pollsters how they really feel about Trump. In a Pew Research Center study released in June, just 6 percent of liberal Democrats said they approved of the president’s performance.
But as much as the mobilization on the left is about stopping Trump, the progressive enthusiasm is about the future of the Democratic Party. The left wants change, especially after 2016.
The progressive left saw Clinton as an encapsulation of the establishment, literally a participant in building the architecture of the party. They believe the establishment is too close to corporate America. (Clinton spent time with lobbyists and big donors during the campaign, and she took big bucks from banks to give speeches after she left the State Department.) And they think it’s too quick to sell out to the right.
Sanders took on Clinton from her left, challenging her not only on policy but on her fundraising tactics and her affiliation with banks. Ultimately, Clinton won the nomination, but Sanders won the party’s future.
His views have reshaped the party almost across the board. Most of the likely Democratic hopefuls have moved further left than Clinton’s starting point in 2016, adopting Sanders’s positions on health care and other issues. The Democratic presidential primary is shaping up to be a fight over ideas rooted in progressive politics.
But on the question of the establishment, most of the field is in a poor position to make that claim. If a candidate backed Clinton over Sanders — and many high-profile Democrats did — they’ll have trouble claiming status as a member of the new left.
A few hopefuls can point to a record of bucking the party. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the conscience of Obama in the Senate during his two terms. But years have gone by since then. She will need to distinguish herself as someone other than a US senator, particularly after backing Clinton over Sanders.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stood up to many in her own party in pushing out Sen. Al Franken over sexual assault allegations. She made sexual assault in the military a national issue. She even called out Bill Clinton. But she is still a US senator, one who signed on to the Clinton campaign early.
Overall, aside from Sanders himself, the field of likely contenders will have trouble running as outsiders.
If Gillum wins, he wouldn’t carry the same baggage. Like Obama, who got to run as an opponent to the Iraq War and a Washington outsider, Gillum could run as a post-Clinton-era progressive, a fresh face who is ready for a new Democratic Party. He got an early Sanders endorsement too.
“It’s an honor to have Senator Bernie Sanders’ endorsement in this campaign,” Gillum said in a statement. “He has been an unapologetic fighter for everyday working people standing up to the special interests. From Medicare-for-all to a $15 minimum wage, his ideas and platform have become the Democratic Party’s north star on economic justice for those who need it most.”
Gillum did support Clinton in 2016, and he was name-dropped as a possible vice presidential running mate. And he’s under the cloud of an FBI investigation, which is looking at corruption in the city of Tallahassee, including during his years as mayor.
He represents what progressives are hoping for, though. Gillum is a fresh national face who would take the Democratic Party in a new direction, and he’d be the opposite of Trump.