Against the Grain

Battle of the Bases Will Set Tone for 2020

The two most important races in the midterms won’t be for Congress. They will be the ideological showdowns for governor in Florida and Georgia.

Former President Carter and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams during a news conference to announce her rural health care plan Sept. 18 in Plains, Ga.
AP Photo/John Bazemore
Oct. 2, 2018, 8 p.m.

On election night, the focus will be on whether Democrats will live up to expectations of winning back the House and can defy the odds to take control of the Senate. But for some smoke signals about President Trump’s reelection chances, two swing-state governor races will offer tantalizing clues about the public’s tolerance for progressivism when the alternative is electing candidates who emulate the pugnacious attitude of the president.

The battleground races are taking place in states that Trump carried but that also have diverse electorates and suburban sensibilities: Florida and Georgia. In both states, Democrats nominated African-American candidates from the progressive wing of the party in hopes of turning out new voters to the polls. In both states, a Trump-endorsed candidate emerged out of nowhere to capture the GOP’s nomination against more-pragmatic opposition.

These contests are all too emblematic of the competing culture clash in the Trump era. African-American candidates are running on liberal priorities such as Medicaid expansion, criticizing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and promoting criminal-justice reform. They’re facing GOP challengers all too willing to stoke cultural battles on immigration and invoke racially charged imagery and rhetoric in ads and television appearances. Republicans are taking Ed Gillespie’s unsuccessful 2017 playbook in Virginia and supercharging it.

The results of these campaigns are being closely watched by Democratic strategists, who view them as a test run of sorts for a 2020 election pitting Trump against one of the party’s rising liberal stars (like Sen. Kamala Harris of California). Many of the party’s pragmatists worry that nominating a pugilistic liberal will turn off the very voters the party needs to defeat Trump. But if a black Bernie Sanders acolyte like Andrew Gillum can win over seniors and suburbanites to become governor of Florida, all bets are off.

The prevailing thinking (including from this columnist) is that running to the left is a surefire way to lose suburban independents who typically make the difference in competitive contests. But in an election where a critical mass of anti-Trump voters is so energized to cast Democratic ballots, swing voters are less likely to dwell on the intricacies of public policy. They’re more interested in sending a message to Trump’s Republican Party than offering an endorsement of an ideological agenda. This is the type of election where even lackluster candidates can ride a blue wave to victory.

The Florida governor’s contest is emerging as an example of this phenomenon. After surpassing expectations to win the Democratic primary, Gillum looked like he’d face a challenging general election against any Republican. The Tallahassee mayor was a rising star in the party and was vying to become the state's first African-American governor. But he also embraced a panoply of progressive proposals—abolishing ICE, legalizing marijuana, embracing Medicare-for-all—in line with his record as a Bernie Sanders supporter. Gillum also faced the cloud of an ongoing FBI investigation looking into possible corruption in Tallahassee government.

His Republican opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis, was such an obsequious Trump supporter than he read Trump-themed bedtime stories to his small children in a television ad. His campaign believed that in a battle of the bases, an older electorate in Florida would be more receptive to a conservative message than a liberal one—particularly with outgoing Gov. Rick Scott remaining fairly popular. But DeSantis is on the defensive after questions about his racial sensitivity have dominated the campaign. He cut ties with a supporter who used racial slurs, faced allegations of associations with hard-right activists, and was accused of using a racist dog whistle on the first day of the general-election campaign. Polls show Gillum with a consistent single-digit lead, and he looks like the favorite.

In a political environment where values speak louder than policies, it’s easy to see why Gillum holds the advantage in a diverse swing state.

In Georgia, there’s a similar Left-versus-Right clash among candidates with less baggage than their Florida counterparts. Stacey Abrams received national accolades for her groundbreaking campaign, which is focused on rallying nonwhite voters who don’t typically vote in midterms as much as persuading moderate suburban voters around the Atlanta suburbs. Her opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, capitalized on his own Trump endorsement in the primary while running as a hard-line cultural conservative. Both candidates are tacking to the middle for the November election, but their base-first reputations were calcified in primary season.

Polls show the race deadlocked, with Abrams’s success dependent on her ability to re-create the typically conservative and racially polarized Georgia electorate. Electing a progressive African-American governor in the heart of the Deep South would go a long way emboldening progressives for 2020.

These two gubernatorial races are emblematic of polarization in the Trump era: Left versus Right, black versus white, cosmopolitan versus populist. They may well serve as a model for how Democrats run swing-state races in the future. But if Democrats can’t capitalize in a historically favorable environment, they’ll find the old rules of politics still apply.

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