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5 major lessons from Andrew Gillum's shocking win in Florida

The last major primary night before the November election packed a major surprise: ...

Posted: Aug 29, 2018 5:10 PM
Updated: Aug 29, 2018 5:10 PM

The last major primary night before the November election packed a major surprise: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum edged out former Rep. Gwen Graham to capture the Florida Democratic gubernatorial nomination, taking a major step toward being Florida's first black governor.

Gillum's victory -- particularly in a state as crucial to the presidential primary and general election process -- has lessons in it for any ambitious Democrat trying to understand the mentality and beliefs of the party base heading into 2020. Here are five.

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1. You can't be too liberal

Gillum was, without question, the choice of liberals in this race. Wealthy California businessman Tom Steyer, who has run ads nationally calling for President Donald Trump to be impeached, was an early supporter of Gillum's. So, too, were George Soros and Vermont democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. Gillum ran as an unapologetic progressive, advocating for single-payer health insurance and calling for Trump's impeachment.

Gillum's win proved -- in truth it re-proved -- that the energy within the Democratic Party is all on its left. Graham, the daughter of Florida political legend Bob Graham, ran as a sensible centrist who gave the party the best chance to hold the seat in the fall. That "head" message couldn't come close to competing with Gillum's "heart" one.

2. Younger is better

The Democratic Party base badly wants fresh faces. Its top three House leaders are all in their mid- to late-70s. The two most recognizable names in the 2020 sweepstakes at the moment -- Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden -- are 76 and 75, respectively. At 39, Gillum represents a younger generation of leaders, willing to go bold rather than bland on policy and unbound by the conventional wisdom of "how to win" that hold back many older politicians. While the 2020 top tier may begin as Biden, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (age 69), there appears to be significant room for younger candidates to emerge.

3. Black candidates are winning

Gillum's victory is the third major victory for a black Democrat in a Democratic gubernatorial primary field in 2018, following on the heels of wins by former NAACP president Ben Jealous in Maryland earlier this year and state Rep. Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Gillum and Jealous both emerged from crowded primaries, while Abrams crushed fellow state legislator Stacey Evans, a white woman, in a one-on-one primary race.

None of that winning trio ran expressly as the "black" candidate in the field. (In Jealous' case, his leading opponent -- Rushern Baker -- was also black.) And all three demonstrated an ability to win votes outside of the African-American base within the Democratic Party. But their victories serve as a reminder of how potent the black vote is within the current incarnation of the Democratic Party. And how the likes of Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) or former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick could benefit from that fact come 2020.

4. Voters still love a powerful personal story

Gillum's background was compelling to voters, and he spoke of it often on the campaign trail. Here's the New Yorker's Benjamin Wallace-Wells on Gillum's life story:

"Last Sunday, Gillum spoke at St. Ruth Missionary Baptist Church, in Dania Beach, Florida. I was in a pew near the back. Over six feet tall, with a shaved head and handsome, Gillum took the pulpit and told the congregation about his life. He was born poor, in Miami. His mother was a school-bus driver and his father was a construction laborer. He was the fifth of seven children, and the first to graduate from high school."

In one of his only campaign ads, Gillum turns to the camera and asks: "What's impossible? The son of a bus driver becoming mayor of the capital city? Is it impossible to come from nothing, be outspent 10-to-1 and win?" (In a longer digital-only ad, Gillum tells his personal story in a deeply compelling way.)

Time after time after time, voters remind us that they reward candidates who have powerful personal narratives that they tell in ways that touch people. Voters vote for a person much more than they vote for a series of policy positions.

5. Money matters less than you think

One of the last vestiges of the old way of thinking about and analyzing politics is that fundraising power is determinative. It isn't. Gillum was drastically outspent by not only Graham but several self-funded candidates in the Florida race -- and still won. (Worth noting: Gillum did have financial support from both Steyer and Soros, which helped narrow the campaign spending gap somewhat.)

Money doesn't make up for message. Money isn't a stand-in for genuine grassroots energy -- and can't purchase it either. There remains a fundraising threshold below which a candidate can't possibly hope to be competitive -- people need to know who you are before they go into the voting booth -- but that threshold is far lower than many establishment types believe it to be.

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