Andrew Gillum a cautionary tale for 2020 Democrats as party moves left
The battle between the centrists and more liberal candidates is one of the biggest questions facing the Democratic Party
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders gave Andrew Gillum a big boost in the Florida governor’s race last year, stepping in at a key point late in the Democratic primary to endorse Gillum and appear at rallies with him.
Last week Sanders was back in Florida for his own campaign, taking the stage at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the first debate of the Democratic presidential primary.
Sanders hoped that Gillum would be leading Florida during the 2020 cycle and the Vermont senator would have a close ally in the governor’s mansion and a strong case for his viability as a candidate in a key presidential battleground. Instead, Gillum’s campaign could serve as a cautionary tale for Democrats about nominating Sanders, or a similar candidate.
The ideological divide that played out on the Arsht Center stage last week was reminiscent of the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida last year.
While some candidates — such as former Vice President Joe Biden — pitched a more incrementalist approach that would result in less dramatic changes, Sanders, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others argued for a transformative progressive agenda that embraces higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for things like free college and “Medicare for All.” Sanders even acknowledged during the debate that his health care plan would lead to higher taxes on the middle class, although he said people would pay less overall because their premiums and out of pocket expenses would go down.
Gillum also backed Medicare for All and wanted to increase taxes on corporations to pay for education programs. He called for abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and impeaching President Donald Trump.
Those views won Gillum the hearts of many Democrats and helped vault him over Gwen Graham, whose father, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, was in Miami supporting Biden last week, and three other candidates in the primary.
But Gillum came under heavy fire by Republicans, who branded him a socialist and slammed his strongly liberal views. He was able to best the field of more moderate candidates in the primary, but ultimately failed to convince a majority of Florida voters that he was a better choice to lead the state than Gov. Ron DeSantis.
There were plenty of intriguing story lines that came out of the Democratic presidential debates, including Biden’s stumble and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’s breakout performance.
But the ideological battle between the centrists and more liberal candidates is one of the biggest questions facing the Democratic Party. It could have enormous ramifications for how the party’s eventual nominee fares in swing states such as Florida, and in the overall outcome of the presidential race.
It’s an old debate that comes up every primary season, and one that grips both parties — the perennial tug of war between appealing to the activist base or to a broader electorate.
But the fight within the Democratic Party seems especially pronounced this year, in part because the liberal wing of the party has become stronger, but also because the stakes seem higher for many Democrats who view Trump with utter disdain and are desperate to unseat him.
Trump is unlikely to win reelection without winning Florida, so nominating a candidate who can do well in Florida could be critical for Democrats.
Despite Gillum’s loss, both Sanders and De Blasio said during interviews last week that they believe a strongly progressive candidate can win the state.
De Blasio noted that Gillum came “damn close.” DeSantis won the state by less than half a percentage point in a race that was so tight it prompted a mandatory recount.
“A progressive can win the state with a clear progressive economic message, I don’t have a doubt in my mind,” said De Blasio, who raised additional questions about his viability in Florida last week when he quoted Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, who is despised by many Cuban exiles in Miami.
Both De Blasio and Sanders also pointed to higher Democratic turnout in presidential elections as a key reason why Gillum’s razor-thin loss doesn’t signal doom for a progressive in the presidential race.
“I do believe we can,” Sanders said when asked if he can win Florida. “But everything depends upon growing the voter turnout, it means bringing young people and working people into the political process in a way that we have never seen, and one of the things that I’m proud of, I think my campaign will be a campaign of energy, a campaign of excitement, will grow the voter turnout and that’s the way you beat Trump.”
There’s also an argument to be made that Gillum’s ethical issues — he paid a $5,000 fine after the election for accepting gifts from a lobbyist — was a bigger drag on his campaign than the socialism critique. It’s impossible to know for sure why he lost.
But what’s certain is that Gillum was a staunchly liberal candidate in the mode of Sanders and other more revolutionary figures in the party, and he failed to win the governor’s race.
If Gillum’s campaign was a test of whether Floridians are ready for that type of politics, it failed. The Democratic Party is now preparing for an even bigger test and Republicans, including Trump, are ramping up the same criticisms that were lodged against Gillum.
The head of the Republican National Committee made a stop last week at Versailles restaurant in the heart of Miami’s Cuban exile community, a hotbed of anti-socialism sentiment, and ripped the Democratic Party for a leftward “lurch.”
“You are seeing the Democratic Party embrace socialism,” said RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel.
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez responded by noting that the socialism critique is trotted out by Republicans every campaign cycle.
“The use of the word socialism by the Republicans is the oldest trick in the book,” he said. “When Social Security and the minimum wage, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act were being debated what they all had in common is the Republican opponents of those bills said they were socialism. What they were was making capitalism work and that’s what Democrats are for.”
But it’s not just Republicans raising concerns about socialism. The party’s pull to the left has some leading Democrats nervous.
“I think that the bottom line is, if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said during Thursday’s debate.
How the debate plays out remains to be seen, but it’s clear there is plenty of energy on the left wing of the Democratic Party as the 2020 cycle approaches, and the outcome of that ideological struggle could be hugely consequential in Florida, and across America.