Despite being locked in a pretty close race, Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum had never met in person before Sunday’s gubernatorial debate in Florida. Let’s just say they didn’t hit it off. The CNN-hosted event made clear that the two men have little in common, disagree on nearly everything, and have little respect for one another.
“Andrew is a failed mayor,” DeSantis, a former GOP congressman, declared roughly 50 seconds into the debate, before Gillum even had the chance to introduce himself. “He’s presided over a crime-ridden city. He’s involved in corruption. He’s not the guy to lead our state.”
Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, seemed a bit taken aback by that early broadside but soon began launching attacks of his own. At different points during the night, Gillum suggested that DeSantis had been an “obstructionist” congressman who achieved nothing of consequence during his time in office, has been bought and paid for by “some of the biggest polluters in this state,” and is now “trying out to be the Trump apprentice.”
While the state-level race won’t factor into which party controls Congress next year, the battleground contest has nonetheless become a proxy for the larger political fights playing out across the country this year—which is to say, the Florida gubernatorial election has become a referendum on Donald Trump and the electability of unapologetic progressives in places where Democrats have traditionally run toward the center. DeSantis was one of Trump’s earliest congressional supporters and remains one of his staunchest defenders. Gillum, meanwhile, has been calling for Trump’s impeachment since at least late last year, and paired that #Resistance badge of honor with a policy agenda Bernie Sanders could love: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, and hiking corporate taxes to better fund public education. One recent major outlier excluded, the two have been running neck and neck in polls for the past month, in a state Trump won by a little more than 1 percentage point two years ago.
DeSantis made his allegiance to Trump clear throughout the night, although it wasn’t quite as steadfast as you’d expect from a man who cut a primary ad in which he jokingly indoctrinates his kids into the world of MAGA. The Republican curiously refused to say whether he thought Trump was a good role model for children, instead answering that question by lauding the president’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Gillum made sure to highlight that non sequitur when it was his turn to answer by getting the moderator to repeat the question. “That’s what I thought,” Gillum responded, drawing laughs from the audience.
Trump served as the night’s most obvious dividing line, but it was far from the only one. DeSantis and Gillum traded cherry-picked stats concerning crime in Tallahassee, a topic DeSantis brought up at least a half-dozen times during the course of the night. And they also clashed on pretty much every policy issue that came up, from global warming to health care.
On the former, DeSantis declined to say whether he accepts the scientific consensus about man-made climate change, while Gillum promised he’d be a “governor who believes in science.” On the latter, Gillum hit DeSantis over his repeated votes to repeal Obamacare, which would scrap many protections for people with pre-existing conditions, while DeSantis went after Gillum for his stated support for Medicare for all, which would create a single-payer system. (Interestingly, Gillum avoided giving a full-throated defense of that plan and instead focused his remarks on expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income Floridians.)
The disagreements also spilled into the personal. DeSantis repeatedly attempted to wield an ongoing FBI investigation involving Tallahassee city government as a weapon against Gillum, who he suggested accepted illegal gifts including a trip to Costa Rica in exchange for political favors. (Gillum has said he paid his own way and it’s not clear how much that trip even factors into the FBI probe, since the agency will not discuss ongoing investigations, but ethics watchdogs were rightfully irked when they learned of the vacation.) Gillum, who would be his state’s first black governor if elected, eventually shot back: “I don’t take free trips from anybody. I’m a hardworking person. I know that may not fit your description of what you think people like me do, but I worked hard for everything that I’ve gotten in my life.”
Soon after, Gillum was more explicit. “The congressman let us know exactly where he was going to take this race the day after he won the nomination,” he said in reference to DeSantis’ post-primary dog-whistling remarks that voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum. “The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all. And he has only continued over the course of this campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin.”
Gillum ended the night with a closing remark that stood out for its relative optimism in a debate that had skewed negative. “In Trump’s America, we’ve been led to believe that we’ve got to step in our neighbor’s shoulder and their face and their backs in order to get ahead,” Gillum said. “Well, I reject that. And we have an opportunity on Nov. 6 as a collective, as a state, to say we deserve better. We want better. We want better schools, access to health care, a clean economy, a restorative justice system that works where hand in glove the community and law enforcement work together for all of our benefit.”
Watching from afar, Trump was of course unimpressed. He took to Twitter to declare “a great debate victory” for DeSantis and to warn voters that Gillum, if given the chance, would “make Florida the next Venezuela!” Back in Florida, Gillum responded by saying the president had simply proved his point for him: