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DeSantis (and Trump) win the race for Florida governor as Republicans stay in power

© Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

By David Smiley and Emily Mahoney, Miami Herald
ORLANDO, Fla. - 

Ron DeSantis had Donald Trump's back in Washington. Now, he'll have it in Tallahassee.

In an election the Republicans and Trump felt they absolutely had to win, DeSantis, a firebrand former congressman, scrapped and clawed his way into the Florida governor's mansion Tuesday. He beat charismatic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, keeping Republicans in power for another four years in the nation's largest swing state and validating Trump's decision to put his brand on the line for a politician who just one year ago remained a relatively unknown commodity in his own party.

Now, DeSantis will steer a conservative and newly constituted Legislature as Florida's ultra-conservative governor and serve as a key piece on the 2020 presidential chessboard. His win - a stunning blow to Democrats who went into Tuesday confident that Gillum would prevail - continues two decades of Republican rule in the Sunshine State and solidifies Trump's home away from home.

DeSantis' victory wasn't pretty.

Gillum, who'd hoped to become Florida's first black governor, accused DeSantis of stoking racial tensions and of "harboring racists." DeSantis countered that Gillum was surrounded by anti-Semites, called him a socialist and warned he would turn Florida into Venezuela. He ran attack ads as a major hurricane approached Gillum's city, and with Trump's help he depicted for voters a dystopian image of a Gillum-run Florida overrun by crime and undocumented immigrants.

But DeSantis, who voted Tuesday morning in Ponte Vedra Beach with his wife, Casey, and their children, Madison and Mason, never sought style points. The former prosecutor's hard-nosed campaign won over more than 4 million Floridians, enough to give him a roughly 1-point vote edge over Gillum late into the night and affirm Republican dominance in the state.

"I spent a lot of time working on this campaign with Ron and the team. It was a little dicey at times but I'm really happy about where we are," said state Rep. Byron Donalds. "This shows the new wave of Republican leadership in our country. Ron's a young guy, I'm a young guy, (U.S. Rep. Matt) Gaetz is a young guy, so it's really about what the future of our party looks like."

DeSantis' win may send Florida Democrats into an existential crisis.

In a year that Florida's longtime minority party believed would prove to be a rebuke of Trump's divisive rhetoric, the 40-year-old former Navy prosecutor ran a counter-campaign based on his allegiance to the president. After defending Trump for months on Fox News, where his role on the House Intelligence Committee gave him a made-for-TV role attacking the Robert Mueller Russia probe, DeSantis courted the president's endorsement last year. When he landed Trump's blessing - in a tweet, naturally - DeSantis became an instant contender for governor. He crushed Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam during the August primaries and rode Trump tweets and rallies to victories in the general election.
"If these results hold, Florida is officially and irretrievably a red state," Democratic consultant Steven Vancore said as DeSantis and Gov. Rick Scott began to pull away in their respective races.

Early in the night the mood at the DeSantis watch party was nervous, with the earliest returns showing strong results for Gillum. Some 300 attendees at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando looked at their phones, sipping beer and wine. The crowd was a rag-tag bunch, featuring men in suits and a woman in a sequined red dress alongside a man in a golden Trump wig underneath a MAGA hat and people decked out in American flag clothes from head to toe. A few considered leaving early.

But there was the quiet refrain: Wait for the Panhandle. Gaetz, a close DeSantis ally and surrogate, walked past the press area to proclaim, "The Panhandle is coming in!" with a fist pump.

Then right after 8 p.m., after the polls closed, Gillum's small lead quickly shrank then reversed, to show a neck-and-neck race with DeSantis leading by less than half a point, then more than a full point within another hour. Dave Matthews, 57, who runs his own radio show in Winter Springs and was at the event holding a "Veterans for DeSantis" sign, said he was feeding off the renewed energy.

"I'm so anxious and so excited!" he said, throwing his head back. He was wearing a leather jacket with patches referencing his military service, not uncommon for the mix of suits, MAGA hats and biker attire typically seen at DeSantis events. "We knew coming into this race that it was going to be neck-and-neck but the Panhandle is going to throw down."

By about 9 p.m., the sitting crowd had stood up, in front of the stage and the mega Fox News screens.

As a former member of the congressional Freedom Caucus, the Harvard-educated DeSantis will fit right in with libertarian incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva (a Miami Lakes lawmaker who endorsed DeSantis early in the primary) and likely have a better relationship with the state party than Scott ever did. He's promised to help clean up the Everglades and end Florida's toxic blue-green algae plague. He's vowed to expand Florida's ever-increasing network of charter schools and to double-down on private school vouchers. He opposes any expansion of gaming.

But mostly, DeSantis campaigned on the idea that Scott has guided the state into a groove of low unemployment and prosperity, and on his alliance to Trump. He rallied with the president twice in the final week of the campaign, and rarely disagreed with anything Trump said or did. He made his ability to work with Trump - on funding for Everglades restoration, defense and storm recovery - a strong selling point to voters.

"DeSantis seeks to become the fourth governor in a row, to extend 20 years of Republican hegemony," Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Florida consultant and anti-Trump Republican who did not vote for his party's nominee, said before the election. "He's the standard-bearer."

That was just fine with Florida. In an election where more than 8 million people voted - a dramatic jump from the 2014 midterms - voters embraced the Trump message. Democratic predictions that independent voters would break their way fell short. And for all the talk of a "blue wave," Republicans turned out in higher numbers than Democrats amid talk of the new, far-left Democratic Party.

"If it's a blue wave, we're going to go down the road of Venezuela," said Brody Crawford, a 25-year-old stock trader who waited outside First Presbyterian Church in Brickell to vote Tuesday morning. "If it's a red wave, the economy will keep booming."

Outside the West Dade Regional Library, Tom Harrison, a 68-year-old retired Metromover technician who lined up before the polls opened, said he was "Trumpin' all the way across the board." Calling Gillum a "super con-artist," he said he was voting Republican all the way down the ballot.

"Mostly it's about keeping things the way they're going," he said. "I like the way they're going."

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Politics News: DeSantis (and Trump) win the race for Florida governor as Republicans stay in power
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