On Tuesday, Florida Democrats nominated Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, as their candidate for governor. Gillum, who is African-American, ran an impressive come-from-behind campaign to defeat former congresswoman Gwen Graham; in the fall, he will face Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Trump admirer who kicked off the general election by saying that voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum. Meanwhile, Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson is in a surprisingly competitive race for Senate with Republican governor Rick Scott.
To discuss Florida and the broader state of play heading into the final midterm sprint before November, I spoke by phone with Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report. An edited and condensed version of our conversation is below.
Isaac Chotiner: What did you make of the Florida results?
Dave Wasserman: Florida is turning into an unusual state this cycle. The national trend has been towards Democrats, obviously. We have all been focused on a blue wave. But Florida is a place where Democrats are not performing quite as well as in other states. It really starts with the senate race. Rick Scott has poured a lot of his own money into the race, and Bill Nelson is a financial drain on other incumbent Democratic senators, and isn’t regarded as the most energetic campaigner.
Then, you look at the governor’s race, and Gwen Graham carried a lot of the more Republican portions of the state where Democrats need to make inroads to do well in November. Gillum could produce a higher African-American turnout than Graham would have, but keep in mind for every extra African-American voter he brings out in November, he might not convert a Republican-leaning moderate that might have voted for Graham. On balance, that might not be a great trade for Democrats.
And that brings us to the House races in Florida, and there is only one seat where Democrats have a great opportunity to flip a Republican district. And that’s the 27th district where Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring. She was very popular with a lot of Democrats in that district who voted for Hillary Clinton, in part because she openly rejected Donald Trump. She has been strongly in favor of LGBT rights for many years. Democrats have a nominee in Donna Shalala, who is universally known in the district as the former HHS secretary and former president of the University of Miami. By the numbers she should be winning this seat going away. It is still competitive, however, because she would be the second oldest freshman in Congressional history. She is 77. And Republicans have a female Cuban-American journalist as their nominee, Maria Elvira Salazar. It leans towards Democrats but is still competitive. Then, in the rest of the state, Democrats have opportunities that are potentially less strong.
The case for Gillum as a strong candidate would be that he can energize the base and bring new people in without losing a lot of moderate white suburban voters who are already especially likely to vote Democrat this year anyway because of distaste for Trump. Do you buy that?
Look, if Graham had won this primary, she would be the favorite for the governorship, and not only because DeSantis is a magnet for controversy, but because voters have strong memories of her father, [former senator Bob Graham]. Many of those voters won’t be accessible to Gillum. The best bet for Democrats now is to drive up turnout in heavily-blue parts of Florida—central cities like Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Tampa. They are going to have to offset the very Republican portions of the state.
There is a baseline level of enthusiasm among Democrats that gives them a good chance of holding onto the senate seat and flipping the governorship, but Graham could have piled on by winning over some traditionally Republican voters who had fond memories of her father. Gillum doesn’t have that advantage.
How do you think racial dog-whistles will play in this race?
Frankly, it is something that has become a media obsession but is probably not going to drive a lot of voters’ decisions, or make a difference in their choice.
Why is Bill Nelson having so much trouble? Isn’t it extremely rare for an incumbent of the opposite party of the president to lose re-election in a toss-up state after two years of a presidency?
Yes it is very rare, but there are always exceptions to waves. In 1994, for example, there is every reason Chuck Robb should have lost re-election, but he won because Republicans nominated Oliver North. In 2010, there were states where Democrats ended up surviving. Harry Reid is a good example of that. Even in a great year for Republicans, he ended up winning by an unexpected margin in Nevada.
But why is Nelson specifically having so much trouble?
He’s been around forever, and he has lost a step or two. The contrast between Scott and Nelson, on stage and in a debate, could be dangerous for Democrats. Scott is a conservative Republican, but he is also a technocrat. Nelson is from another era of Florida politics.
Last time we talked, we discussed the gap between the House, where Dems are favored to capture a majority, and the Senate, where more and more Democratic seats seem to be in play. Do you have any broader theory for why these elections seems distinct?
It comes down to Mars vs. Venus. The Senate is simply being fought on Republican-friendly terrain, whereas the House is being fought in the suburbs. But there is evidence that Republicans are coming home [in red states] and that tends to happen before elections. In my 11 years of doing this, the clear trend in the past few months before the election has been a reversion to the state’s or district’s political mean. And that’s why a few Republicans who have been trailing their opponents in heavily red places might experience a late bump.
Put it this way: A big mistake of the punditocracy in 2016 was that it failed to take into account how undecided voters would break. Fundamentally, if you were Hillary Clinton, and you had a 4-point lead heading into election day, it would have been much safer if that lead was 49-45 than 46-42. The reality was that it was much closer to 46-42, and undecideds tend to break against the party in power. That was Democrats. If we are making a mistake now, it might be that we are too cautious about the potential for Democrats’ gains. They have a generic ballot lead of about 7-8 points according to most averages. But there are still a lot of undecided voters, and this time it is Republicans who are in charge. Now, in heavily red states and districts, Republicans will win a higher share of the undecideds. In more competitive terrain, Democrats will probably win a higher share of undecideds. I think that explains the growth in the gap between the House and the Senate.