Primarily unknown? Democrats face major hurdles in race to be Florida’s next governor

Primarily unknown? Democrats face major hurdles in race to be Florida’s next governor

Candidates face low name recognition, disinterested public and the summer sun as the primary race heats up

The Memorial Day Weekend marks the traditional start of Florida’s primary election campaigns. After a pledge to go dark and observe a somber first unofficial day of summer, political candidates will begin a 13-week sprint to the August 28 primary.

In trying to secure their party’s nomination and reverse more than two decades of GOP dominance of the Governor’s Mansion, the four Democratic candidates face significant hurdles.

Too many don’t know their names — all four trail “undecided” in the polls. And they face a public and media obsessed with President Donald Trump. Plus, its summertime – few want to discuss taxes and budgets when there are grills to fire up, beaches to explore and friends to see.

►GWENDREW: Our daily look at who’s up and who’s down as our mayor and former congresswoman make a run for the Florida governor’s office.

Given the tight window, the numbers aren’t very encouraging. Surveys show up to two-thirds of respondents say they don’t know enough about the candidates to have an opinion on whether to support them.

“They ought to be concerned about it because they don’t have much time left,” said Jay Rayburn, director of the Communications Research Center at Florida State University about the poll results.

“It’s going to take a whole lot of money to get the name recognition up,” said Rayburn, who has spent more than 30-years studying Florida polls. “You can buy it on television, but it takes a lot of money.”

Candidates stake their positions

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, Orlando affordable housing entrepreneur Chris King and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine have spread out across the state’s 67 counties to introduce themselves to voters.

King tells people he strives to be a transformational governor.

“I want to be a governor who creates the political winds that brings the coalitions together to get difficult things done,” said King, mentioning former governors LeRoy Collins and Lawton Chiles as examples of how he would approach the job. .

“Look, LeRoy Collins would have gone on to the U.S. Senate but for his stand on civil rights. It wasn’t popular then, much like we talk about the climate and guns,” King explained during a Tallahassee campaign stop.

“But he viewed it as what was right. … I think that is the moment we are at on gun safety. It is not going to be easy. It is not going to be popular. But we have to have that conversation.”

Gillum wants to give teachers a raise and would tax the state’s growing marijuana industry to pay for it. He also spends a lot of time on the stump discussing crime and punishment.

“Now is the time to reform our criminal justice system by legalizing recreational marijuana and taxing it to generate badly-needed new revenue,” Gillum said.

He points to Colorado as an example of the kind of revenue pot can produce.

“In 2017, they collected $247 million in marijuana tax revenue in a state of about 5 million people in a corner of the country where five states have legalized recreational marijuana,” said the Tallahassee mayor.

GIllum and King are chasing Graham and Levine in the polls. King and Gillum have pulled the race to the left and have called into question Graham’s congressional voting record.

She represented Tallahassee and a huge swath of North Florida as a moderate for one term and has responded to the attacks by making liberal use of the word progressive.

“If more of the politicians in Tallahassee spent a day working to construct affordable housing, they’d see just how much more we could accomplish working together on progressive solutions to help Florida families,” Graham said after a recent workday at a Greater Orlando Habitat for Humanity site.

Graham is in a statistical tie with Levine for the lead. The former South Florida mayor echoes his three rivals. Like King, he wants stricter gun regulations. And like Gillum, he wants to spend more on teachers and schools. And like Graham, he promises to build consensus around workable solutions.

“It’s long past time to say we’ve had enough of the political bickering and posturing, enough of the calculated words of hate — enough of those who would tear us down and tear us apart just to score a political point,” Levine said last November when he launched his campaign.

‘Trump all day’ & the mechanics of power
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham speaks to reporters after announcing she is running for Florida governor in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Graham served one term in Congress, choosing not to seek re-election in 2016 after new congressional maps made her district firmly Republican. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

(Photo: Alan Diaz, AP)

Florida voters haven’t elected a Democratic governor in 24 years. And word from the front lines is they have yet to begin to think about who should be the next chief executive.

They have other things on their minds.

“It’s Trump all day,” said Jeremy Ring, a Democrat running for chief financial officer. “When they think about politics they think about the President – either they are supportive, or less supportive or totally opposed.”

Ring has been campaigning for a year for CFO, a Cabinet position that along with the governor controls the executive branch.

He started one morning in rural Pasco County, then spoke in suburban Jacksonville and ended the day in exclusive Amelia Island – crossing Florida’s geographic and economic divides.

“Most of the time, most of the people in the state aren’t thinking about what goes on in Tallahassee,” said Ring, who served 10 years in the state Senate.

He tells voters it’s an important midterm election. Whoever wins the Governor’s Mansion in November will control the nation’s largest swing state heading into the 2020 presidential election. Then he explains how moderates are no longer a balancing force in the Senate and that the Legislature has become more conservative than the voters.

“And, if there’s a Democratic governor and a Democratic Cabinet the power shifts (in Tallahassee). The electoral muscle shifts,” said Ring, who spent his legislative career in the minority.

Businessman Chris King talks to guests at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in West Palm Beach. King is seeking the Democrat nomination to replace Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the November 2018 election. The primary is next August.

(Photo: ALAN DIAZ/AP)

“It’s important for both policy and political purposes,” Ring said about the election.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott gave former House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford a glimpse of what it’s like to have the backing of the executive branch in policy debates. Pafford rose from an aide to minority leader Lois Frankel to lead the badly outnumbered House Democrats in the 2014-2016 Legislature.

That was when Scott broke with Republicans briefly to support Medicaid expansion, a Democratic priority.

“It was a brief window of opportunity. AHCA was able to portray expansion as a good thing,” Pafford said. “They provided statistics and budgetary information that made the case it was good for Florida.”

Scott flipped in 2015 to oppose expansion and the initiative died. But Pafford said the brief alliance with the governor was an eye opener for Democrats. Often in super minority status in the House the past two decades, they lack the staff and resources to mount an effective opposing argument.

“Leadership from the governor’s office is a game-changer. It’s like a policy rudder in the water that guides people in one direction,” Pafford explained. “Without it, you see a caucus pulled in 40 different directions on any given subject at any given time.”

Cash and calendars

Graham, Gillum, King and Levine have three months to convince voters they can provide that leadership.

So far what distinguishes Levine from the pack is he’s worth a reported $100 million. Between them, the four candidates have nearly $12 million to spend this summer in their bid to win the nomination, according to their campaign finance reports. It will take that much and more to break the Democrats’ losing streak and establish a power base at the state Capitol.

Graham appears to have the most money on hand for the primary. Her campaign and affiliated committee reported having about $4.6 million cash at the beginning of the month.

Levine is next with $4.3 million. He has already spent nearly $5 million of his own money to boost his profile and appears willing to dip into his personal fortune for what ever is needed.

King had $1.6 million in cash at the beginning of May.

Gillum is next with $1.4 million, according to finance reports. However, out-of-state groups such as the Collective PAC are backing him. The PAC that supports black candidates has already spent $700,000 on an ad campaign to boost Gillum’s name in South Florida television markets. On Thursday, television producer Norman Lear tweeted his endorsement of the Tallahassee mayor.

Former Mimi Beach Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine speaks at Tuesday’s meeting of the Tiger Bay Club at the Tucker Civic Center.

(Photo: Hali Tauxe/Democrat)

In addition to the free media generated by celebrities and the paid advertising, the candidates also will get to make their case in four debates.

“Our candidates and our party are committed to ensuring that all voters have the opportunity to hear real solutions to the issues facing Floridians,” said Juan Penalos, executive director of the state party.

The first debate is set for June 9 in St. Petersburg. That face-off will be followed by a debate two days later in Miramar, and debates in Fort Myers and Miami on July 18 and August 2.

Gillum and King, with fewer dollars and less favorable poll numbers, are calling for more debates. Both campaigns see a more robust debate schedule as a must if Democrats are to be competitive in November.

“We must compete in every corner of our state and take no one for granted,” said King, noting Jacksonville and Orlando aren’t on the schedule.

Added Geoff Burgan, spokesman for the Gillum campaign:“Florida Democrats have not had a competitive primary in a generation and our voters need to hear about each candidate’s plans and records.”

If history is a guide, winning a gubernatorial contest isn’t out of reach for Democrats.

Scott won the governor’s mansion by 61,000 votes in 2010 and 64,000 votes in 2014. More than five million Floridians participated in each election. Democrats are counting on the voters’ obsession with Trump, Ring described, to generate a blue wave that’ll erase the GOP’s small victory margin this fall.

Mayor Andrew Gillum (Photo: Hali Tauxe/Democrat)

But first, they must pick who will lead the ticket. The latest poll from Florida Atlantic University shows Levine ahead of the others.

Levine’s the pick 16 percent of respondents, followed by Graham with 15 percent but “unsure” had a comfortable lead at 43 percent. The candidates have 90 days to change those numbers.

“Once Memorial Day passes, someone is going to turn on the money spigot and you are not going to be able to watch television because of all the ads,” said Rayburn. “Somebody is going to have to do it. The name recognition just isn’t there for any of the four of them.”

Reporter James Call can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com.

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