Nestled among manicured lawns and pristine white sand, is Florida's Siesta Key, an oasis on the beach. The affluent city has golf courses, country clubs and its own reality TV show documenting the sun-drenched lives of some of the glamorous twenties residents.
For Democrats, the area has long been more electoral than paradise. Sarasota County voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and has not elected a Democrat on its district commission for more than five decades.
In a normal election cycle, a progressive Democrat who sought to win Florida's governorship would largely depreciate the electoral campaign and focus on less politically entrenched sections of the state. But little about this year's election cycle in America is normal.
On a baking October day, a couple of hundred locals navigated the heat to see Andrew Gillum, a rising Democratic star, who led a surprisingly competitive run for Governor against his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis.
Although the official announcement of the event took place only the night before, the small pavilion was full of mostly white retirees who either prepared with their own folding chairs or just walked up the beach with their flip-flops.
At about 1 pm, Gillum limits the crowd. A middle-aged woman with bright red hair grabbed him for a handshake, but Gillum picked her up and pulled her into a hug. "Wonderful!" She announced. He wore his beach campaign – white polo shirt, dark blue pants, leather sneakers.
A local party organizer gave him a Sarasota Democrat baseball cap and Gillum – ignoring Michael Ducaki's dictates of politics – playfully put it on and occasionally squeezed it into his hands like a small grapefruit to soften the brim.
Love it! I love it! "He said," I have to tell you that I am overwhelmed by your present vision. "
Her presence, he went on, is proof of a movement, and he recalled traveling to The Villages recently was, a wealthy, more than 95 percent white Florida community in which Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016. "Some of you know the villages," he began, pounding it "It's the most conservative electoral area in ours State. And people ask me, "Gillum, what are you doing in the villages ?" I said, "There are voters in The Villages … The way you win is to win one more vote than your opponent." The crowd cheered.
This race for the Florida governorship will become one of the key contests in 2018 as Americans prepare for election next month. It includes some of the most extreme ideological divisions that are going on today in the US: between the left and the conservative right; between pro-trump, anti-migrant, "America First" policy and a progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It also raises the question of whether playing with these extremes could be a more effective campaign strategy than approaching the familiar middle ground.
Both men are young – Gillum is 39, DeSantis 40 – and both represent a new generation of leadership for the two parties. For the Democrats, an African-American who rose from the background of the working class to the mayor of Tallahassee. For the Republicans, a Harvard- and Yale-trained Navy prosecutor and congressman who rose to prominence after establishing himself as Trump's loyal follower and policy.
Trump, after seeing DeSantis on Fox News, confirmed him on Twitter as "a brilliant young leader" (he had previously named him one of his "absolute warriors" after DeSantis repeatedly challenged the Mueller probe).
Gillum In the meantime, Bernd Sanders, patron saint of this movement, is a real step forward. His policy placed him directly outside the moderate wing of the Democratic Party: he not only supports Medicare for all, but also supports the abolition of ICE – the government immigration service – in its current form, which most Democrats have shrunk from.
He has also demanded the impeachment of Trump. If he wins – and RealClearPolitics' average conversion rate advances him by 3.7 points – he would become Florida's first black governor and possibly wear the same state that helped Trump win the presidency two years ago.
The race is a precursor to the presidential election of 2020, when Trump is likely to face a progressive Democratic candidate. It will also be a test of how strong the support of the President remains in Florida and whether he can regain the state. According to the online survey company Morning Consult, Trump's approval rating is barely above water. Forty-nine percent of Floridians agree to his work, 47 percent disapprove of him.
Florida hosts more than 13 million voters and is in many ways a microcosm for the rest of the country. It is one of the few areas of the United States that can decide on presidential elections and whose demographic changes represent a changing America. More than 900 people are moving to the state every day, some of them are successful republican retirees, other young people and families with different backgrounds. Most people under 30 are not white.
Next month's midterm will be a test of whether voters, who are typically much rarer than over-60s, will do so in larger numbers both in these elections and in 2020.
The governor's contest could also influence the state's Senate race, where Bill Nelson, the longtime Democratic senator, turns against Florida's current Republican governor Rick Scott. If Gillum wins his race, it could strengthen Nelson's campaign, especially among young voters. Nelson, 76 years old, is one of several vulnerable Democratic Senators struggling to hold their seats, raising the odds that Republicans could strengthen their Senate majority of 51-49.
Gillum should not even win the nomination of his party. But he was also an unlikely candidate to become mayor of Tallahassee when he entered the race in 2013. He grew up in a low-income family on the outskirts of Miami, with a mother driving a school bus and a father who worked in construction and sometimes sells fruit and vegetables to get through. He was the fifth of seven children, and when he was a teenager, two of his older brothers had been arrested – one for robbery, the other for possession of cocaine.
Gillum took a different path. An avid reader who had a close relationship with his grandmother and an appreciation for the neighborhood gospel church, Gillum excelled in the public (state) school. After the family moved to Gainesville, he became the first of his sibling graduates
He moved to Florida's A & M University, a historically black university, and quickly forged his political career as a Democratic activist. Gillum likes to say he's proof of what good American public education can do. "I know what it means to see intergenerational poverty disrupted by good public education," he told the supporters in Sarasota.
For the duration of the most important this year, Gillum followed behind three more prominent Democrats, including Gwen Graham, daughter of former Beloved Governor Bob Graham and standard bearer of the Democratic Establishment. Graham was to win by the night of the vote, when Gillum broke through one of the biggest upsets in the US base season, beating her by more than three percentage points and overtaking the party both in the country and in the national team
Joe Gruters, chairman of the Sarasota GOP and co-chairman of Trump's Florida campaign in 2016, said the mayor has proven to be a formidable opponent. "Gillum is a great candidate, he's an articulate guy, he's very well spoken … People want a better future, why did Donald win Trump because he wants to" make America big again? "If Gillum wins, it will Not because of his socialist policy, but because he is a better fighter. "
Yet, many Democrats seem to be skeptical of Gillum's chances. A Democratic strategist in Tallahassee says that while most of the establishment has lined up behind him in the series, many win his profits in the private sector. "I think most people would tell you that Gwen Graham is now worth 10 points," the strategist complains, before speculating that if DeSanti's more moderate main challenger had won Adam Putnam, he would also have 10 points, giving Gillum and DeSantis the same alienated to the broad swaths of the state of the moderate voters.
"Florida is usually settled by independents and moderates, where the hell will they go? I have a lot of republican friends who were going to vote for Gwen when it looked as if DeSantis was going to win and am Day after the first, they said, "What are we going to do now?"
Gillum's team knows it's among teens and Sarasota needs a high voter turnout to offset Trump's strong republican support for the campaign. "
At a rally in Kissimmee, I meet Luz McNealy, a 53-year-old grandmother, who has been arrested She has been in Pennsylvania for nine years and has been interested in politics for a long time, but says, "I had no idea how I got involved Somehow the Gillum campaign found them, she says, sending her a text message to her husband's phone. She's been going to events for him ever since.
When I talk to Gillum, he sets out an ambitious plan to win the state – one that includes the support of Democratic strongholds along with republican-held venues like The Villages. "I promised the people on the night I won the nomination that I want to go everywhere and talk to everyone, that we're not limiting ourselves to the way Democrats used to race nationally – essentially Too many counties and prayers that we would have enough votes in other parts of the state to win, "he says.
Gillum is not reluctant in his criticism of Trump. But he also makes conscious efforts not to mention him too often. "I'm trying more to focus on my plans for the state, I do not want … I do not think Florida voters think I'm so worried about Washington, I do not think much about them."
Democrats have adopted a special 2018 election filling a vacant seat in the Florida House of Representatives. In the race, Margaret Good defeated her Republican opponent in the Siesta Key district that Trump won in 2016 and has more than 12,000 registered Republicans as a Democrat. "Not only was it a really big win, we also had the highest voter turnout in modern Florida campaign history," says Good, as we meet at her office. "Many people said I do not think this is a quarter to win."
But the governors race was ugly. Shortly after winning the Republican nomination, DeSantis appeared on cable television and warned Floridians against "spicing things up" and choosing Gillum as governor – something the Democrats immediately called a "racist dog whistle", Trump's often racially-tinged comments played back. DeSantis said the comment had "zero to race".
Meanwhile, Gillum has been plagued by his own controversy: a continuing FBI investigation into the Tallahassee corruption. Gillum says he did not do anything wrong and was told that he is not being investigated. But the investigation has raised questions about his relationship with a former campaign treasurer, who is now a lobbyist. Some Democrats fear that the FBI probe will lead to the deeper concern that Gillum, a relative political freshman, has surrounded himself with the wrong people.
The campaign's increasingly hostile rhetoric is a symbol of polarized sentiment across the country. At the Sarasota rally, several participants tell me that they are increasingly at odds with their more conservative neighbors. "I really needed to be quiet when I got here," says Faith McVey, a former teacher who moved from Delaware to Florida dressed in white coverup, lavender sunglasses, and pink manicure for the beach. She can not talk politics anymore with her brother or wife, nor with most of her neighbors. "It's absolutely taboo," she says.
Barbara Luehring, another retiree, tells me that she was afraid to hang up any Democrat signs because she thought she might lose the services of the Trump contractor helping with the repair of her air conditioning system. "I have to be quiet," she says.
"Previously, it was possible to have an honest and quiet debate, share views, and say that you disagree," says David Jones white-haired bear of a man who recently moved from Toledo, Ohio, to Sarasota. As he talked about a national issue, such as the Kavanaugh hearings, with members of his primarily Republican boat club, it was beginning to dawn on him that it was better to shut up.
Jones sensed that the wind from Washington kept pushing him to the left. "I was probably more of a Hillary person than a Bernie person," he says. But his anti-Trump feelings had begun to convince him that Progressives were better able to take over the administration.
The same feelings of partisan disharmony reappear on the Republican side. Speaking for DeSantis, Mike Dinwiddie, an African-American Uber and Lyft rider, said he was attacked by liberals for supporting Donald Trump. "I've been to Trump rallies … I've never seen a racist or bigoted thing, but I've seen racist bigoted liberals attack me," he says. "Take a look at how Kanye [West] was treated," he says, referring to the rapper who defied Trump's support.
Rosie Paulsen, Vice President of Hispanic Conservatives in Action, says she has a similar undercurrent in Florida's Hispanic community. "The moment people come here, they are completely indoctrinated by the Spanish media, where there is only one side of the story," she says. "The Spanish media are on the liberal agenda and are completely indoctrinated."
Paulsen, who came to the United States as a teenager from Ecuador, says she has had great success in registering conservative Latino voters in Florida's mega-churches. She admits that some critics may find parts of Trump's rhetoric about certain Latino groups offensive, but says she and others overlook it. "He loves his country," she adds, and his conservative agenda was a great recruiting tool. "There were many more people who came to realize that they are Trump supporters because they can not keep silent."
Gruters, chairman of the Sarasota GOP, says if DeSantis wins, it will be because of a deep underlying support for Trump in Florida. "The more the president is attacked by outside groups and external factors, the more people dig the hole next to him and [are] are ready to follow him through the galaxy to do whatever it takes to succeed. "
Two days after seeing Gillum in Sarasota, I drive north to see his opponent DeSantis having lunch at the Italian Club of Tampa. An entertainer flings Frank Sinatra ballads and the smell of meatballs floats in the air. Just as the crowd gets restless, DeSantis shows up with his wife, a glamorous former news anchor, in front of a crimson velvet curtain.
On stage DeSantis – who has the steely and stiff demeanor of an American political action hero – is a bit wooden. (In his defense, he fights a cold.) But the crowd that has "Make America Great Again" does not seem to bother. "I am proud to be here today as the only candidate who is a veteran of our armed forces," he begins. "I'm proud to be the only candidate to openly say that I'm a free enterprise, and I'm the only candidate who can credibly say I'm not under FBI investigation," he says in high-pitched cheers ,
He suggests Trump and then suggests to both Democrats and the media, "You see, there is no difference between these national media elites and the Democratic Party, they are united on the hip, they do the same, and they do are both greasers who have seen our public discourse more than I have ever! "
Then, with DeSantis still in suit and cowboy boots, we sit down in a corner of a nearby restaurant. The candidate says his support for the president is partly a reaction to the unfair reception he believes Trump has received from the political elite.
"He was elected and what I saw was an official Washington rebellion against him The press hates him All the deadlocked interests in DC hate him K Street [political lobbyists] hates him Obviously, the Democrats hated him – the establishment Republican hated him … "he says. "So I was like, you know, I want him to succeed, I'll support him with all the crap he needs to take, that does not mean I've agreed everything."
He can refer to this kind of hostile reception. He grew up in Florida with "blue-collar roots" and worked his way through Yale and Harvard Law School – two institutions that never felt at home. "I was a worker's dude, I worked $ 6 an hour the previous summer [for]and I was a total hare," he recalls.
DeSantis says he knew that Trump's support would help him win the Republican primary. "Our voters are concerned about what the president thinks, I mean, they really care." He thinks that it will help him with the parliamentary elections. "The economy is even stronger than it was … We're pulling a lot of people, a lot of money, a lot of business into the state … To go on this wild tangent and try to imitate Illinois or California [in their liberal policies] I would be a big mistake and I think most Florida voters will eventually come down on this side as well. "
Gillum's victory over the other Democratic candidates in August was one of the biggest coups for this election cycle for the Bernie More importantly, Sanders' wing of the party, perhaps more significantly as 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is a successful primary challenge by Joe Crowley, one of the New York's highest-ranking Democrats.
Ocasio-Cortez fought in a left-wing democratic district. While Gillum was mainly supported by billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros, he was eventually overtaken by his opponents. His victory was mainly due to a microcosm of broader democratic base: a mix of moderate – mostly older – white voters and a new coalition that helped bolster Barack Obama, which was largely driven by minorities and voters under the age of 35.
"What you really experience in Florida – and we are a guiding star for the country – is that the Boomer generation has now been replaced by this younger-generation dynamic, as Gillum discovered early on," says Susan MacManus, one of the state's leading political scientists and retired professor at the University of South Florida.
The importance of demographic youth is especially in a republican inclined region such as Sarasota. "Sarasota was one of the most solid republican counties in the state and that has changed," MacManus continues – in part, she says, because of the influx of younger voters and partly because of heightened concern about an environmental phenomenon called "Red Tide"