ORLANDO — In another razor-thin election, Florida voters on Tuesday continued a two-decade streak of Republican dominance by electing former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis as governor.
With more than 8 million votes counted, the state Division of Elections showed DeSantis leading Democrat Andrew Gillum by a margin of 49.88 percent to 48.9 percent, or about 78,000 votes.
DeSantis and his wife, Casey, appeared before supporters at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando shortly after 11:15 p.m, after receiving a concession call from Gillum.
“I worked as hard as I could and left everything on the field,” DeSantis told the crowd. “I’m excited for the opportunities for Florida.”
Gillum conceded at 11 p.m. as he spoke to supporters gathered at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.
“We could not be prouder of the way that we ran this race. We could not be more thankful for the support that was shown by each and every one of you all the way along this path. We recognize that you know we didn’t win it tonight. We didn’t win this transaction,” Gillum said, adding that “what we believe in still holds true today.”
Gilllum said he called DeSantis and congratulated him. “But I want you to know that, in spite of our congratulating him on his victory this evening, nothing that we believe in is compromised,” Gillum said.
The nationally watched race was widely viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump, whose endorsement of DeSantis helped boost the former congressman to a primary victory in August.
“The true story of this race is intense gratitude to President Trump. I think without his two visits we would not have done enough to inspire Republican voters to show up. And nobody brings it like the big guy. He came down here and fired up our voters, and it looks like we’re poised for victory,” U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday night.
During his victory speech, DeSantis also acknowledged Trump’s role in the campaign.
“I would like to thank the president for standing by me when it wasn’t necessarily the smart thing to do,” he said.
While DeSantis’ lead continued to hold as late results rolled in from across the state Tuesday evening, Gillum supporters at an election-watch party on the campus of Florida A&M University, where the Tallahassee mayor launched his political career as student body president, refused to concede to the Republican.
“Let’s keep hope alive. We can still pull this off,” radio personality Tom Joyner told a crowd of students and supporters, many of whom were clad in blue T-shirts emblazoned with Gillum’s name.
Joyner said he moved to Florida to vote in the race.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anybody get in my way. Let’s bring this home,” he said, echoing Gillum’s campaign refrain.
DeSantis’ win was a crushing blow for Democrats, who had pinned their hopes on Gillum making history as the state’s first black chief-of-state and recapturing the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century.
Many Democrats believed that the 39-year-old Gillum, the father of three young children, injected a degree of enthusiasm lacking for their party’s candidates over the past several elections.
But the Tallahassee mayor was forced to defend himself against accusations of wrongdoing related to an FBI investigation of city government, which became a cornerstone of DeSantis’ campaign.
DeSantis and his supporters accused Gillum of being dishonest and corrupt for accepting a ticket from an undercover FBI agent to the popular Broadway show “Hamilton,” and traveling to Costa Rica and other places with lobbyist Adam Corey. Gillum said he paid cash for his share of a rental house shared with Corey and others in the 2016 Costa Rica vacation.
The trips and the ticket are part of an ethics investigation into Gillum, and Corey is at the heart of a federal probe into Tallahassee city government. Gillum has repeatedly denied he is the subject of the FBI inquiry and has steadfastly maintained he hasn’t done anything wrong.
But Trump called Gillum a “stone-cold thief,” and DeSantis repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he’s “the only candidate that isn’t the subject of an FBI investigation.”
From the beginning of his campaign, DeSantis, a lawyer and former congressman, tied his electoral chances to Trump, using frequent appearances on the Fox News network to defend the president and his policies.
It was Trump’s support, including a July endorsement rally in Tampa, that helped propel DeSantis past a better-funded and more widely known opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, in the Aug. 28 Republican primary. He beat Putnam by 20 percentage points.
Trump again played a major role in the general election, appearing at rallies with DeSantis in Lee County and Pensacola in the final week of the campaign. The president also used his Twitter account to attack Gillum, calling him “a thief” who is “mayor of poorly run Tallahassee.”
DeSantis, meanwhile, was plagued by accusations of racism following remarks he made the day after his primary victory in August. Attacking Gillum during an appearance on Fox News, DeSantis, referring to successes in Florida achieved by Scott, said “the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases, and bankrupting the state.”
DeSantis’ comments drew widespread criticism and became a theme in the general-election contest.
But the Republican defended himself and his supporters against the racist label, while slamming his Democratic opponent for backing a major tax-hike proposal and wanting to expand government programs, including health care.
The stark differences between the two candidates and the negative nature of the race were crystallized in two vitriolic debates. DeSantis hammered Gillum’s ethics and honesty, questioning whether he has been telling the truth about his role in the ongoing FBI investigation.
In one of the most memorable lines in the debates, Gillum stopped short of calling DeSantis a racist but said “racists believe he is a racist.”