Follow CBSMIAMI.COM: Facebook | Twitter
TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – Hoping to rebound from a lackluster start, the Ron DeSantis campaign is bringing in the woman who helped President Donald Trump carry the state two years ago.
The Republican candidate’s campaign events are transforming from subdued to lively, fundraising is picking up and the attack on Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum is becoming more focused. That’s just in the week he brought in Susie Wiles to reboot the campaign.
“It’s not too late,” said Brian Burgess, who was communications director on Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign, working with Wiles to help him squeak out a razor-thin victory despite being down in the polls a month before the election.
DeSantis stumbled out of the gate after winning the Aug. 28 primary largely on Trump’s endorsement. The next day he warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by supporting Tallahassee mayor Gillum, who is hoping to become Florida’s first black governor. Democrats criticized the remark as racist and DeSantis spent his first week on defense.
Gillum’s momentum was immediately clear: In the first three days after the primary, his political committee hauled in $2.3 million, compared with less than $250,000 raised by DeSantis’ committee in the same period.
While Gillum was drawing large crowds of energetic supporters, DeSantis’ crowds were sparse and lacked similar enthusiasm. Republican strategist and commentator Ana Navarro tweeted a photo of a lively Gillum rally, saying the contrast between DeSantis and Gillum events were like a “hand-me-down scooter versus a little red corvette.”
If DeSantis is going to turn around the campaign, the time is now. Last week, 2.6 million mail-in ballots were shipped to voters and are already starting to trickle back.
Burgess said Scott likewise had to retool after the primary, noting that the campaign didn’t even have a television ad on the air for three weeks — a seeming eternity in a state where nominees are picked a little more than two months before the general election.
“There can always be some hiccups like that and there’s still plenty of time to get it moving. If they are full speed by next week they’ll be all right,” Burgess said. “They got caught flat-footed. Obviously, Gillum was off to the races right away. Gillum knew darned well who his opponent was going to be; I don’t think they (the DeSantis campaign) were prepared for Gillum.”
Gillum shocked political observers by winning his primary, a crowded race where he spent the least and had much less presence on television than his four opponents. But he excited Democrats who call themselves progressive and had a strong group of volunteers to help drive out the vote.
By contrast, former U.S. Rep. DeSantis built his entire primary on the support of Trump and a constant presence on Fox News.
“The challenge for DeSantis is that DeSantis won on clear partisanship,” said David Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic pollster who isn’t affiliated with Gillum’s campaign. “How DeSantis won his primary makes it hard for him to build on his support. The way Gillum won, he was able to build on it. … Gillum did it with personality and passion, and DeSantis did it on Trump.”
There are signs that the DeSantis campaign is getting more focused. Polls are tightening and this week he packed the Italian Club of
Tampa. The crowd swayed to a 1950s-style singer crooning “Chantilly Lance” and cheered wildly when DeSantis took the stage.
“I believe in everything that he’s doing,” said Hoang Nguyen, a 40-year-old programmer. “Especially on education and the judges.”
DeSantis and Republican allies have begun to hit Gillum hard with television ads criticizing his response to a hurricane that hit Tallahassee in 2016, his proposal to raise the state’s corporate income tax and an FBI investigation into Tallahassee City Hall. Gillum says he isn’t a target of the investigation.
The governor’s race could have implications far beyond who’s elected to the lead Florida. It is the largest state that can swing either way in a presidential election, and the sitting governor will be influential on whether Trump or his Democratic opponent earns its 29 electoral college votes.
Gillum could also help Sen. Bill Nelson, who is facing Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the toughest battle Nelson has faced since being elected in 2000. Gillum can help bring out minorities and younger voters, who often have lower turnout in midterm elections.
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the enthusiasm around Gillum is spreading to congressional races that weren’t thought to be competitive.
“Keep an eye on some of these other Florida races where maybe they weren’t on everyone’s radar because the numbers are showing that something is happening in a positive way for Democrats in the state of Florida,” Lujan said.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)