A Centrist and a Liberal test Florida, and Democrats everywhere watch closely

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A centrist and a liberal test Florida, and Democrats everywhere watch closely Fans cheer as President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill Nelson in Miami, Nov. 2, 2018. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

The senior senator came out first, all drawl and political muscle memory — the man with the golden-est hair in the room and an entrance song, “Eye of the Tiger,” from 1982.

“Wow,” Sen. Bill Nelson managed, greeting a few thousand Democrats packed between the barricades of an indoor event space Friday to see Barack Obama — and the young man, running for governor of Florida, whom everyone keeps comparing to Barack Obama.

Nelson, 76, spoke a little Spanish, interrupting himself to translate every few words. He approximated a new-to-Twitter uncle at Thanksgiving, disparaging the environmental record of his Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott — or, “hashtag Red Tide Rick.” The people cheered dutifully.

And then Nelson introduced the party’s main attraction on the ballot this year: the midsize-city leader nearly half his age.

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“What’s going on everybody?” asked Andrew Gillum, 39, the Tallahassee mayor who wants to run the state, grabbing his turn at the microphone like a baton. “Are y’all ready to flip Florida blue?”

The people roared.

For two years, national Democrats have been puzzling over how best to counter President Donald Trump, plotting their comeback in areas red, blue and in between. And in the country’s largest swing state, they have constructed perhaps their purest possible test case.

Atop the Democratic ticket are two candidates standing at intraparty poles, two political theories of the moment, poised to help answer two inextricable questions about their party’s future: Which model will prove most effective Tuesday night? And which should light the way forward Wednesday morning, when — like it or not — the 2020 presidential campaign effectively begins?

There is Gillum, the young, black, uncompromising progressive, who wants to impeach the president and takes the stage to “Walk It Talk It” by Migos.

“My opponent already knows I’m black, y’all,” Gillum joked in Fort Lauderdale last week, referring to Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate, as his guests lost themselves in the hip-hop beat for a moment. “Trying to win this race.”

And there is Nelson, the septuagenarian, white, unapologetic centrist who revels in incrementalism and joined Congress the year Gillum was born.

A centrist and a liberal test Florida, and Democrats everywhere watch closelyA centrist and a liberal test Florida, and Democrats everywhere watch closely Members of Mi Familia Vota look for the next house to visit while canvassing a neighborhood in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 4, 2018. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

“On Nov. 6, you know what we are going to be singing?” Nelson has said often on the campaign trail. “’Happy Days Are Here Again’!”

Beneath them on the ballot are at least a half-dozen Democratic House candidates whose races — closely contested in a mix of suburban, immigrant-heavy and once-Trump-leaning districts — could determine control of the chamber. And so the state has reaffirmed its standing as the center of the political universe, with all the attendant contradictions.

It is the place where Obama won twice, and where doubts persist about whether an African-American can be elected governor.

The place where a man allegedly planned mail bomb attacks in the election’s final weeks targeting many of the president’s opponents, and where a Republican congressman, Carlos Curbelo, held a news conference last week with a teenager who threatened to kill him on Twitter.

The place where Trump keeps his second home, and where large sums of voters — from seething immigrants to students galvanized by the massacre in Parkland — hope to drive him from his current residence.

“Is Donald Trump an American? Will someone please check his birth certificate?” Donna Shalala, the Democratic nominee in a Miami congressional district, asked at the rally with Obama. “He certainly isn’t from here. We don’t fear immigrants. We are them.”

As ever in Florida, the electoral picture is complicated. It is both a quadrennial presidential tossup, where Trump won by a point in 2016 and Obama won by less than that in 2012, and a state under near-total Republican control for a generation. No Democrat has been elected governor since 1994.

For years, Nelson has been the Democrats’ folksy exception in statewide races, his amiable moderation held up as the template for hanging on through persistent political headwinds.

Even now, amid wide-scale upheaval in the party, some Democrats believe that this approach remains the surest way to win here, fearing that Gillum’s left-wing platform risks alienating the kinds of moderates and soft Republicans that Nelson has made a career out of drawing in.

But as Nelson reaches Election Day against Scott, an aggressive and self-financed challenger who has all but accused the senator of being a doddering fool, many in the party have been quietly hoping that Gillum would lift his fellow Democrat through sheer force of personality.

“Turnout will be a function of Andrew Gillum’s charisma,” said Bob Buckhorn, the Democratic mayor of Tampa. “He’s going to get us to the finish line.”

Unknown to many here until just a few months ago, Gillum has become something of a campaign supernova this fall. He has attracted enormous crowds and a national following with a slate of progressive policy prescriptions and a willingness to speak with unusual bluntness about race in his contest against DeSantis, a Trump acolyte and former congressman.

National Democrats have framed the contest as a kind of referendum on the future of the party, reasoning that if an unyielding liberal can win in the South — in the swingiest swing state, at that — then why should they ever settle for anything less?

“This is the most important race in the United States,” Tom Steyer, the billionaire progressive who has supported Gillum, said at a recent fundraiser in Coral Gables. “When we flip this state blue in 2018, we’re going to flip this country blue in 2020.”

The prospective presidential contenders are surely watching, convinced that Tuesday’s verdict will make clear if the ground is more fertile for a hard-charging (and potentially nonwhite) progressive or more of an old-guard Democrat.

Though Nelson has been a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate, he and Gillum part ways on many defining issues for today’s liberals and younger voters — and for more moderate Democrats deeply skeptical of what liberals and younger voters are demanding.

Gillum wants Medicare for all; Nelson is focused on preserving the gains of the Affordable Care Act.

Gillum wants to legalize marijuana; Nelson is for medicinal marijuana only.

Gillum wants a $15 minimum wage; Nelson has talked up $12.

Gillum wants to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its current form; Nelson is unwilling to go there.

“I am! A revolutionary!” Gillum supporters, exhorted by an introductory speaker, chanted during an event last week at a Miami Dade College campus, where a sign outside asked visitors not to feed the iguanas.

Nelson is not a revolutionary.

Yet Gillum has risked alienating some voters with a platform that many critics consider implausible for a state that prides itself on its low taxes and is likely to remain under Republican rule in the Legislature.

“Where is he going to get all this money to do all these things?” asked Edilia Anasagasti, 64, a one-time Democrat now registered without party affiliation.

She said she voted for DeSantis but also for Nelson, not out of any ideological fealty but because of his reliable constituent services. Nelson once tried to help Anasagasti’s cousin get a travel visa from Cuba. “I’m going to be grateful to him always,” she said.

Democrats well-versed in Florida’s complex constituencies caution against writing off the Nelson way. “Mayor Gillum and Sen. Nelson help each other,” said Ashley Walker, who ran Obama’s Florida campaign in 2012.

Gillum is trying to build a different kind of coalition, betting that young and nonwhite voters can be trusted to show up. He is also facing an opponent whom Democrats view as far less formidable than Scott. But Florida — at least the parts of it not featured in music videos — is still the South, where plenty of voters remain disinclined to support a black man.

Gillum has shrugged this off.

“Once people got comfortable enough, they said, ‘Do you think Florida’s ready for a black governor?’” Gillum recounted recently on “The Daily Show.” “And I said, ‘Look, y’all elected Barack Obama twice. I’m not Barack Obama, but you’ve answered your own question.’”

Another argument for Republican success Tuesday is that the state, by many measures, is doing quite well — a fact at the core of Scott’s and DeSantis’ campaigns. Florida’s 3.5 percent unemployment rate is lower than the national average, an impressive figure that Gillum argues masks an unhealthy dependence on lower-wage service jobs. But the number of higher-paying jobs has also grown.

The most serious challenge for Democrats is demographic. To replicate Obama’s success, they need minorities, millennials and white progressives, precisely the groups that — like elsewhere in the country — tend to skip midterm elections.

“Florida’s tough,” said Daniel A. Smith, chairman of political science at the University of Florida. “We’re not shedding population. Younger voters are not replacing those that are dying off. Younger voters coming of age are being counterbalanced by older voters moving to the state who are more likely to vote.”

Perhaps most crucially, Latinos in Florida do not necessarily vote like Latinos nationally. Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans still dominate at the polls. Democratic-leaning non-Cubans, especially Puerto Ricans in central Florida, have started to balance them out, but have yet to match their turnout — and may not this year. Polls show Scott has made inroads with Puerto Ricans grateful for his overtures after Hurricane Maria; he spent part of Saturday in Kissimmee, outside of Orlando, in a caravan-style event that featured boricua drummers.

DeSantis has tried to pad support from Cubans and their allies-in-exile — Nicaraguans and Venezuelans — another way: by labeling Gillum a “socialist.” Last week, he dropped by for cafecito at the famed Versailles restaurant near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood and stood in front of rowdy supporters who had passed the time before his arrival yelling at news reporters deemed “comunistas.”

Yet while the governor’s race has emerged as a kind of proxy for the parties’ dueling futures nationally, several contests in the House may have a more immediate effect on the country’s political direction.

About a half-dozen congressional races in Florida remain competitive, in no small part because voters amended the state constitution in 2010 to require “fair” — read: less gerrymandered — districts. Republican incumbents in survival mode, like Curbelo in South Florida and Brian Mast in the Treasure Coast, have tried to campaign on the environment, an uncommon theme for some Republicans.

In districts once considered major reaches for Democrats, like a seat in a typically-red patch outside Tampa, they have drawn increasingly close in recent weeks.

“It feels different,” Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the Democrat running against Curbelo, said over a plate of ceviche in a campaign office above a sushi-Thai restaurant at a strip mall. “Gillum, maybe, is getting people more excited.”

This much enthusiasm is a departure. In past years, the party has struggled to raise money and field credible candidates in many districts. So thin is the Democratic bench, according to Buckhorn, the Tampa mayor, that even staffing a Gillum administration could be challenging.

“We’ve been out in the wilderness for so long that many of the folks who normally would step in are too old, out of politics or doing something else,” he said.

This is a challenge Democrats would be happy to have. The day after Obama’s visit, the party’s candidates gathered in West Palm Beach to appear with a more overtly Floridian campaign closer: Jimmy Buffett, summoned to preach peace, love and shakers of salt.

But first came the undercard. Nelson strode onstage, looking out on a lawn of beach towels and avian-casual button-downs, and promised to be quick.

“Rather than giving a speech,” he said, “I’m going to introduce Andrew Gillum.”

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