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MIAMI (CBSMiami/NSF) — In what could be one of the biggest upsets in recent political history in Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor, setting up a battle against Republican Ron DeSantis in November.
Gillum, 39, captured more than 34 percent of the vote, compared to former Congresswoman Gwen Graham’s 31.4 percent.
A crowd of supporters assembled at The Hotel Duval in Tallahassee was exuberant as election results showed Gillum slowly making gains on Graham throughout the evening, chanting “Bring it home” and “I believe we will win.”
Gillum told the crowd that the race wasn’t about him.
“This race is about every last single one of us,” he said
Gillum has long been considered a rising star in the Florida Democratic Party but trailed in the polls in a crowded primary that featured Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King and Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene.
But Gillum’s campaign gained momentum in after picking up endorsements from progressive icon U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and financial backing from billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros.
WATCH: Andrew Gillum’s Victory Speech
At a concert venue in downtown Orlando, hundreds of Graham supporters appeared stunned by the election results as it became clear that Gillum had bested Graham, the daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham who was long considered the frontrunner in the race.
“He represents the future in many ways,” Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, a former state representative, told The News Service of Florida at Graham’s election-night watch party.
Gillum, who would be Florida’s first black governor if elected in November, trailed in the polls and in fundraising over more than a year of campaigning.
“What has made Andrew’s campaign so powerful is that he’s not just working hard to win an election, he has laid out a vision for a new course for the state of Florida and our country. No one person can take on the economic and political elites on their own. Tonight, Floridians joined Andrew in standing up and demanding change in their community. That’s what the political revolution is all about and Andrew Gillum is helping to lead it,” Sanders said in a statement following Gillum’s primary victory.
Tuesday’s primary set the stage for what will be one of the most closely watched races in the country, as Democrats try to flip the governor’s mansion after being shut out of power for nearly two decades.
Each of the Democratic gubernatorial wannabes harped on a theme of being the best-situated candidate to recapture the governor’s office and rekindle the dominance Democrats held for a century in the Sunshine State.
Republican Ron DeSantis, who defeated Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam Tuesday night said about Gillum, “He is way, way too liberal for the state of Florida. He wants to raise taxes. He wants to engage in more spending. That is exactly what we don’t need to be doing.”
WATCH: Gwen Graham’s Concession Speech
With support from national groups backing black candidates and progressive politicians, Gillum laid out a campaign strategy relying on “black voters, brown voters, younger voters and poor voters,” he told The News Service of Florida in an interview this month.
Greene, a latecomer to the race who poured nearly $38 million of his own money into the primary campaign, insisted that he was the only Democrat who could outspend Republicans. Greene also pledged to unfold his wallet to aid Democrats, who consistently have been outraised and outspent by the GOP, up and down the ballot.
After continuing to trail in the polls, however, Greene appeared to pull the plug on his campaign in the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary. Greene on Monday canceled a planned election-night watch party at his Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa in Palm Beach. In a statement issued by his campaign, the candidate said he instead was going to watch the election results at home with his wife and three young children.
Levine, who was shown in some polls as running neck-and-neck with Graham as the election neared, also maintained that he would be the strongest Democrat to take on the Republican contender in November.
WATCH: Phillip Levine’s Concession Speech
Congratulating Gillum on his primary victory, Levine called the Tallahassee mayor “a fierce fighter who has what it takes to lead our state forward, and he can count on my help every step of the way.”
Throughout more than a year on the campaign trail, Levine consistently pointed to successes racked up during his tenure as mayor of the popular South Florida destination to support his pitch for governor. But naysayers contended many of his claims were unfounded, and his critics, including Greene, accused him of being a bully.
Levine took credit for addressing sea-level rise, by installing pumps and raising roads, as one of his major accomplishments as mayor. Miami Beach spent $500 million to install the pumps, but some scientists later blamed the pumps for dumping fecal matter into the shores off South Beach. The analysis prompted outrage from Levine, who called the report “sloppy science” and disparaged the Miami Herald for its reporting on the issue.
Levine also took credit for raising the minimum wage in Miami Beach — an effort that’s been tied up in court — and for reforming what he called a “broken” police department. He’s also been praised for advancing policies that earned the city perfect scores for LGBTQ inclusiveness.
But the former Miami Beach mayor quickly rallied behind Gillum on Tuesday night.
“This is a fight for the future of our state and the soul of our nation, and it’s a fight that we are going to win. We’re going to elect Andrew Gillum, the first black governor in the history of the state of Florida, re-elect Senator Bill Nelson, and win seats up and down the ballot — we will rise to the occasion and take back our state! Democrats, let’s get this done,” Levine said in a statement.
In the 2018 midterm elections many have deemed the “year of the woman,” Graham played up her role as a PTA mom who once worked for Leon County schools.
Graham, who was both mocked and revered for her predilection for hugging, delivered one of the most memorable lines of the Democrats’ campaign season during an April debate in Tampa.
“I seem to be the one,” she sighed, after being attacked by two of her opponents. “It’s Gwen and the men.”
At a July debate in Fort Myers, Graham used a bright pink blazer as a prop as she stood beside her four dark-suited rivals.
“You may notice I look a little different than my other friends up here on the stage,” she said, adding that she’s “a mom” and a “PTA president.”
King tried to appeal to progressive Democrats as the candidate with the most “bold” agenda.
King — whose conversation is peppered with “transformational,” “big ideas,” and “bold” — tried but failed to make inroads in an election dominated by candidates with deeper pockets and national backing.
The 39-year-old King, however, took credit for changing the shape of the governor’s race, starting with laying the groundwork for nearly all candidates — with the exception of Republican Adam Putnam — to refuse money from U.S. Sugar, the powerful “special interest” many critics blame for contributing to an outbreak of toxic algal blooms on both coasts.
An earnest and enthusiastic father of three young children, King told the News Service this month he was in the race to win but at the same time acknowledged it’s an “uphill race” for him.
“I’ve got two gazillionaires I’m running against,” he said, referring to Greene and Levine. He called Graham “the daughter of one of the great political icons” who “was one of my idols,” referring to former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.