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Gubernatorial Primary Races Tight Heading Into Primary Week

Ryan Dailey

In the last week before the state’s primary elections, Florida’s gubernatorial candidates put rubber to the road in a final push to woo voters.

Polls ahead of the primary have even political insiders guessing at what a matchup will look like in the general election.

Two Democrat frontrunners, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and former Philip Levine, have been taking turns holding a razor-thin lead. Levine spoke with early voters in Florida’s Capitol in the middle of a three-university tour. Vying for the nomination, he’s casting himself as the only candidate who can fight the Trump agenda.

“You know, when I entered the race early on I was in last place. Now I understand myself and Gwen are right at the top, the two of us together,” Levine said, assuring voters he would take on Washington on their behalf.

“The only way we’re going to do it is to put the best person on the field who’s going to go toe-to-toe with the White House,” Levine said.

Former congresswoman Gwen Graham voted in Tallahassee this week after traversing the state.

“There have been huge crowds, lots of excitement — engagement. Recognition of the significance of this race,” Graham said. “This race is going to determine Florida’s future.”

Graham has had the advantage of name recognition thanks to her father, former Governor Bob Graham. She recently got an endorsement from one of her dad’s friends, Jimmy Buffett. Thousands of “Parrotheads” rallied for a “Get Out the Vote” concert in Miami.

“With Gwen in office I think we have a chance – better days are in the cards, I have a feeling,” Buffett said from the stage.

In some polls leading up to primary week, Levine and Graham have battled for a one-point edge. Others show Graham with a more comfortable lead. But Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum has been touting what he calls a “surge” in the eleventh hour.

“The grassroots capacity that has picked up is taking us the distance,” Gillum said at a recent campaign stop in Tallahassee. “People are now sharing and spreading, and that’s the only way you can explain how it is – in this public polling – I could be in front of somebody who’s now spent what, $30 million on television?”

There, Gillum refers to billionaire candidate Jeff Greene, who has campaigned on being able to self-finance. Gillum has been polling in third place, but has experienced a bump as wealthy donors and PACs pump money into his campaign. A fifth candidate, Orlando businessman Chris King, is continuing his bus tour despite polling in the single digits.

Perhaps what all the Democrats have in common is trying to figure who they might face from the solidly two-man Republican race. Levine has a good guess who that will be:

“We realize now that Ron DeSantis is going to be the Republican nominee,” Levine told reporters this week.

Some last-minute polls have shown Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis sneaking ahead of his competition, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. DeSantis was in Jacksonville recently, where he’s been endorsed by Mayor Lenny Curry. It’s another endorsement, though, that could have accounted for DeSantis’ surge.

“I’m a Navy veteran, I served down the road in Naval station Mayport. I’m a proven, principled conservative leader,” DeSantis said at a republican gubernatorial debate in Jacksonville. “And I’m endorsed by President Donald Trump.”

Trump himself acknowledged during a recent rally that his endorsement gave DeSantis an edge.

“He was at three. And I gave him a nice shot, a nice little Tweet, ‘bing bing’ … and he went from three to like 20-something,” Trump said.

Meanwhile Putnam has tried to contrast himself as the homegrown candidate to DeSantis’ establishment pick.

“This election is a choice between the Washington way, and putting Florida first,” Putnam said.

State functions that fall under Putnam’s agency, like gun permit background checks and water policies have become fodder for criticism amid a toxic algae crisis and highly publicized shootings.

Yet, the Republican race appears to be up for grabs. A recent Florida Atlantic University poll favors DeSantis by just one point. Floridians will have to wait until November to find out if the governor’s mansion will remain red, or get its first Democrat in 20 years. 

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.