By Letitia Stein
TAMPA (Reuters) – Florida‘s marquee governor’s race heated up on Wednesday, when the Trump-backed Republican candidate said the state should not “monkey this up” by electing his opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum, who is African-American, in November.
U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis, a staunch supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump who won his party’s nomination on Tuesday, made the remarks on Fox News and immediately came under fire for their negative racial undertones.
“The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases,” DeSantis said, after calling Gillum “an articulate” spokesman for far-left views.
Gillum, the liberal mayor of state capital Tallahasee, won a surprising victory in the Democratic primary for Florida governor, and has said he hopes to motivate younger progressives and minority voters who normally sit out non-presidential elections.
If he wins the Nov. 6 election, he would be the first black governor in the country’s most populous swing state.
“It’s disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo wrote on Twitter.
Words like “monkey” or “ape” have been used to demean African-Americans and are considered racist in that context.
Gillum’s campaign referred Reuters to Rizzo’s remarks, and several other members of Florida‘s congressional delegation also condemned the comment.
DeSantis spokesman Stephen Lawson said the candidate was referring to Gillum’s political positions, not his race.
“Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace” Gillum’s policies, Lawson said in a statement. “To characterize it as anything else is absurd.”
However, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who is running for re-election against outgoing Republican Governor Rick Scott in November, wrote on Twitter that “Comments like DeSantis’s are unacceptable in civilized discourse.”
Fox News host Sandra Smith, who interviewed DeSantis, later said on air that the network does “not condone this language.”
Following Tuesday’s primary, the two parties are looking to their most fervent supporters – progressive Democrats and Republican conservatives – for victory in the Nov. 6 election. The race will be closely watched for clues about the mood of voters and messaging ahead of 2020, when Trump could be seeking re-election against a liberal Democrat.
More than 3.5 million people voted out of 13 million registered voters in the state for a turnout rate of 27 percent, the highest for a non-presidential Florida primary since 2002.
Gillum, 39, “is a kind of young Democrat that can actually, for a change, spike turnout,” said Susan MacManus, a political analyst and retired political science professor at the University of South Florida.
Three African-Americans have been nominated in gubernatorial races this year, all from the Democratic Party: Gillum, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Ben Jealous in Maryland.
DeSantis won his primary by touting his closeness to Trump, who endorsed him a few months ago. Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday morning to tout the congressman again, slamming Gillum as a “failed” mayor in Tallahassee, the state capital, without providing evidence.
DeSantis, 39, has been a staunch defender of the president against Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into potential ties between Trump‘s campaign and Russia in 2016. Trump denies there was any collusion.
Gillum won as an unabashed progressive who backed “Medicare for all,” impeaching Trump and standing up to the National Rifle Association. A victory by him would mark a change in fortunes for Florida Democrats, who have been out of the governor’s office for 20 years, and have lost close races after nominating moderates who failed to generate enough enthusiasm, particularly among minority voters key to the Democratic base.
“We certainly believe that for too long the aspirations and needs of communities of color have been pushed aside as the Democratic Party runs to the center. I think Andrew Gillum is another example of how people are motivated to vote for people with bold platforms,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority and the New Florida Vision PAC, which is focused on turning out infrequent minority voters and canvaased for Gillum.
Gillum ran up big margins in Jacksonville, Miami and other big metro areas. He trailed Graham in opinion polls for much of the race but surged late with the backing of liberal U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and high-profile wealthy liberal donors like George Soros and Tom Steyer.
The state, the third-most populous in the nation behind heavily progressive California and generally conservative Texas, is often closely contested in federal and state races.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Florida; additional reporting by David Gaffen; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)