For the first time in more than two decades, Floridians have a wide open primary race for governor in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Expect both sides to emerge bloodied and spent.
As of now, the Democrats have four candidates to consider — three of whom are mainstream, establishment types and a political newcomer whose family roots in the party run deep.
Republicans have two very conventional candidates who have been in public service for decades.
“It appears there are going to be more credible viable candidates in both parties’ primaries than we’ve seen in a long time,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican activist and lobbyist known for helping Bob Martinez get elected Governor.
And on both sides, there’s the X factor.
Eye on 2018: A look at all of the 2018 races
For the Democrats, it’s trial lawyer and marijuana amendment champion John Morgan.
For the Republicans, it’s conservative firebrand House Speaker Richard Corcoran and ultra-right wing Trump loyalist U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.
“This is going to be a close one,” said Susan MacManus, a political analyst and distinguished professor at the University of South Florida. “This could be the fifth election in a row where we have a 1 percent margin of victory.”
Both open seat primaries will be highly competitive and contentious, MacManus said.
“The challenge will be putting Humpty Dumpty back together after the primary,” she said.
What the Democrats have going for them is an unpopular president, a new wave of activism, and GOP candidates that have drifted from their base.
“2018 is a referendum on Trump,” Stipanovich said.
Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum are in a four-way race with Winter Park businessman Chris King and Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine.
Republicans are trying to create the narrative that Democrats have a lackluster, uninspired choice of candidates who cannot raise the money to win the governor’s mansion.
But MacManus attended the Florida Democratic Party’s recent convention at Disney World and came away with the impression that people are excited about their choices.
“If one watched the forum in Orlando this past weekend and talked to people in hall the common theme would be we’ve got three great candidates,” MacManus said.
A recent poll commissioned by Florida Politics shows Graham leading the pack with 31 percent, Gillum in second with 13 percent, Levine in third with 6 percent and King bringing up the rear with around 5 percent.
But when Morgan is added to the equation, he leads them all.
With one candidate so far out in front, who do you attack, Stipanovich asked.
“It’s difficult to advance a cause by being negative. You need something notable to say that separates you from the pack.”
All four candidates support environmental protection, combating climate change, fixing Florida’s public education, and promoting economic development and diversity.
Graham, who benefits from her father’s name recognition, is polling well with women, especially older women who are high turnout in a primary, MacManus said. Graham has made restoring public education her priority.
Gillum faces a lot of challenges with the city he governs posting the highest crime rate in the state for the third year running. Also, the city manager just took an administrative leave pending the outcome of an ethics investigation. And the city is under a federal probe for possible corruption allegations.
But Gillum keeps steadfastly campaigning around the state, touting his grassroots mobilization efforts and the fact that most of his donations are coming from regular people. He’s made economic justice and restoring felon voting rights priorities and is polling well with minorities, MacManus said.
King, a Winter Park entrepreneur who sits on the board of an organization that provides free medical care to the uninsured, is polling well with younger voters, MacManus said. He’s made affordable housing and economic development priorities.
They’ve all chimed in on climate change, a huge issue for a state that has thousands of miles of coastline and already exhibiting signs of global warming’s impact.
Levine, who made millions in the cruise industry, has made climate change one of his top priorities as Mayor of Miami Beach.
He successfully ran for mayor in 2013, and was re-elected in 2015. Both times he funded his campaigns entirely by himself. He’s already put $2.6 million of his own money into the governor’s race.
He pushed through a minimum wage for Miami Beach in 2016 even though a state law forbids it and the matter is now before the courts.
This year he hosted the U.S. Conference of Mayors and launched his own climate change initiative.
The Democrats’ problem isn’t money, Stipanovich said. It’s maximizing the number of people who turn out on election day. The job for the Democrats is to get voters to the polls, he said.
The GOP has 20 years in power, the ability to raise huge amounts of money and mobilize the base.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow and State Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater are the declared front-runners for GOP primary and the establishment candidates. And they’ve raised millions of dollars through their individual political committees.
Corcoran, from Land O’Lakes, hasn’t declared but he’s also raised millions and has been crusading against backroom deals and unchecked use of public dollars by Enterprise Florida.
DeSantis, a congressman from the Palm is another potential spoiler.
Together, they could split the Tea Party vote and attack Putnam as a phony conservative, while Latvala continues to be a thorn in Putnam’s side, political observers have said.
Primaries bring out the core constituency, or the base, Stipanovich said, and the base tends to be more hardcore conservative than Putnam and Latvala have demonstrated. By chasing those voters during the primary, the candidates could wind up in a Trump Black Hole come the general election, he said.
Latvala has his own battle, after six women recently alleged he sexually harassed them. Senate President Joe Negron has opened an investigation into the charges, but Latvala’s campaign said Saturday nothing has changed.
“Jack has a narrow and difficult path to the nomination,” Stipanovich said.
In the end it’s going to come down to who mobilizes the most voters, MacManus said.
And that is going to be particularly difficult with the negativity out there among voters.
“Everyone is inundated with negativity and it is sticking to everyone,” MacManus said. “They can’t take it, they can’t read or watch news. At a time when candidates need to start gaining traction many voters are tuning out.”
Contact Schweers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
Read or Share this story: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2017/11/04/eye-2018-governors-race-shaping-up-x-factor-both-sides/818147001/