The Florida Governor’s Race Is Suddenly About Race

Andrew Gillum has been the target of racist ads and attacks that go far beyond mere dog whistles

After Andrew Gillum’s expert-confounding victory in Florida last week, it was a mere matter of hours before the inevitable race-baiting commenced. Following in the footsteps of their Georgia neighbors, Florida Democrats nominated their first-ever black candidate for governor in Gillum — and his newly minted Republican opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis, celebrated his own win by going on Fox News and trotting out some racial code-speak.

First, the congressman called Gillum “articulate” and “charismatic.” The Tallahassee mayor had “performed” well in the Democratic debates, he allowed, making it sound as if Gillum had tap-danced and sung his way through them. Done with the freighted compliments, DeSantis then took it up a notch, after saying he wanted to “build off the success” Florida has had under Gov. Rick Scott. “The last thing we need to do is monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”

Wait — did the man actually say “monkey”? He did. “It’s very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump,” Gillum said later that day on Fox. “In the handbook of Donald Trump they no longer do whistle calls, they’re now using full bullhorns.”

The bullhorner-in-chief had been a tad more subtle in his own 5 a.m. post-Florida-election tweet, calling Gillum a “failed Socialist Mayor” who “has allowed crime & many other problems to flourishing in his city.” DeSantis’ opponent, Trump opined, “is his biggest dream.”

The president couldn’t be more grossly mistaken about that: If anybody got his dream opponent in this election, it’s Gillum — as DeSantis’ “monkey” comment made clear. Like Stacey Abrams, the first black nominee for governor in Georgia, Gillum hopes to win by drawing record numbers of voters of color and millennials to the polls, Obama-style. And the more dog-whistling and bullhorning that DeSantis and Trump do between now and November, the better his chances of inspiring a turnout tsunami.

So while Gillum was duly lamenting that “monkey” comment, he could not even pretend to be truly upset or outraged; instead, he took a page right out of Obama’s “they go low, we go high” playbook, tweeting back:

Later, on Fox himself, Gillum elaborated: “I actually believe that Florida and its rich diversity are going to be looking for a governor who’s going to bring us together, not divide us,” he said. While he’s busy appealing to “our higher aspirations as a state,” Gillum added, “DeSantis can do the bidding of big business and big lobbyists and Donald Trump.”

The presence of black candidates at the top of the ticket presents an exquisite dilemma for DeSantis, Trump and Brian Kemp, the voter-suppressing Republican who hopes to fend off Abrams in Georgia. It’s one thing to race-bait white candidates and make them “black by association”; it’s a whole ‘nother to direct racial barbs at black candidates seeking to make history on a state level akin to Obama’s earth-shattering breakthrough in 2008. As the late John McCain could certainly have testified, nothing will concentrate the minds of the voters Gillum and Abrams need — white liberals and people of color alike — quite like racialized put-downs of their champions.

But here’s where it gets tricky for the GOP: If they keep it clean and steer clear of agitating the Democratic base, DeSantis and Kemp risk having their own white-right bases stay home in November. How are Republicans supposed to win in Georgia or Florida sans race-baiting? It’s been decades since they even attempted it. And in elections expected to be very tight, the temptation will almost surely be impossible to resist.

Of course, the Republicans can always rely on outside groups to do their dog-whistling for them. In Georgia, the Republican Governors Association has been on the job ever since Abrams’ primary victory in May, running a series of attack ads painting Abrams as “the most radical liberal to ever run for governor.” A shiftless radical liberal at that: The RGA has already run two spots assailing Abrams for having tax debts, including one that features unmistakably darkened images of the candidate:  

Abrams had spoken openly about being in debt throughout the primary campaign, even writing about it in-depth at Fortune magazine, and she was ready with the perfect response to the attacks:

Checkmate! Abrams has been positively masterful about converting what should be a liability to her advantage. And when Trump tweeted about her as a “crime-loving” candidate, trotting out some prime dog-whistling, she responded with precisely the right note of gentle mockery:

When Gillum became the target of the ugliest racist attack of the year thus far, just a few days after winning the primary, he showed that he’s been taking notes. Late last week, an unknown number of Floridians were treated to a robocall from Road to Power, a white-supremacist and anti-Semitic group based in Idaho, that made DeSantis’ “monkey” comment sound like mild code-speak by comparison. Over background sounds of drums and monkeys, the Uncle Remus-sounding speaker says, “Well, hello there. I is Andrew Gillum. We Negroes … done made mud huts while white folk waste a bunch of time making their home out of wood an’ stone.” The voice then promises to pass a law letting blacks evade arrest “if the Negro know fo’ sho’ he didn’t do nothin’.”

The call was making headlines just in time for Gillum’s round of appearances on Sunday-morning talk shows. He was a model of equanimity. “I want to make sure that we don’t racialize and, franky, weaponize race as a part of this process,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union. “People are taking their cues from [DeSantis’] campaign and from Donald Trump.” When Chuck Todd asked him on Meet the Press whether he thinks DeSantis is racist, Gillum declined to take the bait: “I won’t get into the gutter and name call.”

Less than one week into the general-election campaign, Gillum was already outwitting DeSantis and Trump — and letting them, and their neo-Nazi fans, fire up the voters he needs. The polls now showed the upstart Democrat holding a slim lead, and his campaign said it had taken in a rapid $2 million in donations after the attacks began. As he told Rolling Stone in a recent interview, Gillum knows he needs folks to be as energized behind him as they were for Obama 10 years ago (when he carried Florida). “When our base doesn’t get excited about our nominee, they don’t show up. Many of them feel they’ve been failed by the politicians, by the government. They’re out there working two jobs to try and make ends meet, and even if they lean toward the Democrats, just that is not going to get them to take the time to vote and to participate,” Gillum said.

Gillum is giving them all the incentive he can muster, with the kind of straight-up progressive message that Florida Democrats have traditionally been terrified of offering up: Medicare for All, marijuana legalization, $1 billion more for public schools and sweeping criminal-justice reform, just for starters. “What we’ve been doing as Democrats for the last 20 years hasn’t worked,” he said. “The only way to change that is by not shrinking from who we are and what we believe. Putting our flag in the ground and giving people something to vote for and not just vote against — that’s how we win.”

While Gillum gives Florida Democrats something to vote for, he knows full well the Republicans will be giving them something to vote against as well. You won’t likely see him — any more than Obama in ‘08 or Abrams in Georgia — get bent out of shape when the racist barbs come his way, no matter how vicious or insulting. Because Gillum knows full well that the lower they go, the higher his vote total will climb.