A socialist look at the Florida 2018 midterm results: Part 2
Part two of two
This is part two of a two-part series. View part one here. The specter of socialism in South Florida
It’s notable that Gillum saw narrower margins of victory in the three largest counties in South Florida, which typically go big for Democrats. He won, but he needed to win bigger to overcome DeSantis’ mega-margins in rural Florida. Some have pointed out that DeSantis’ better-than-expected performance in Miami-Dade and Broward came from his Cuban-American, Spanish-speaking running mate, Representative Jeanette Nunez. Neither Gillum nor his running mate, Chris King – nor Bill Nelson, for that matter – speak Spanish, precluding them from direct appeals to many Latino voters.
The far more decisive factor in DeSantis’ performance in South Florida was blatantly pandering to the right-wing Cuban exile community, along with wealthy Venezuelan and Colombian expatriates. Elections analyst Giancarlo Sopo estimates that DeSantis won 66% of Cuban-American voters in South Florida to Gillum’s 33%, accounting for a 160,000-vote difference. Remarkably, DeSantis improved on Trump’s 2016 vote totals among Cuban-Americans and picked up 78,000 more votes than his master.
How did he do it? From the minute DeSantis clenched the Republican nomination, the former congressman sought to label Gillum a ‘socialist.’ Scott and the GOP joined in, sending out mailers and running TV ads comparing Gillum to Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro and the late Fidel Castro. It earned DeSantis the support of reactionary Cuban exile organizations like the Inspire America Foundation and the Bay of Pigs memorial society, Brigade 2506.
Gillum ran on the most left-wing platform Florida has seen from a gubernatorial candidate in decades, but he is not a socialist. He sidestepped the question in a primary debate and moved away from more left-wing issues, like Medicare for All, during the general election. At one point, Gillum even tweeted out condemnations of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and Maduro – a move ridiculed by left-wing activists. But these ham-fisted attempts did nothing to downplay the fears of Cuban exiles.
Of course, the anti-socialist attacks on Gillum worked well among white small business owners too – another natural mass base for the GOP in Florida. DeSantis coupled his ‘Red scare’ rhetoric with blatantly racist dog whistles, which the Dixie ruling class has historically used against unions, communists and the Black liberation movement. It reflects a growing fear of socialism by the ruling class, and I suspect Florida was a test-run for the GOP’s national rhetoric to come.
Amendment 4: Game-changer, or too-little-too-late?
All but one of the twelve constitutional amendments on the ballot passed. The most important of these, Amendment 4, passed with 65% voting yes to automatically restore the right to vote for non-violent ex-offenders. Amendment 4 can, in theory, restore the right to vote for over 10% of eligible voters – and over 20% of Black voters, which significantly reshapes the electorate.
On the other hand, it’s also possible that these gains will be offset by the Trump-directed census and redistricting process, which will begin in 2020. Florida’s electoral maps are heavily gerrymandered, despite passing two constitutional amendments to supposedly fix the issue in 2010. Gillum as governor could have vetoed a new set of gerrymandered district maps. DeSantis will do no such thing. The Republicans have the institutional power to counter the effects of Amendment 4 with a more aggressive gerrymandering process or Georgia-style voter suppression laws.
What’s next? The people’s movements after the midterms
Gillum’s campaign aroused a lot of enthusiasm in the people’s movements, which proved instrumental in his primary victory over four better-funded Democratic candidates. It remains to be seen what will happen to that energy. There’s a great likelihood the Democratic establishment will use Gillum’s loss to rebuke progressives in the party – wrongheaded, since centrists like Alex Sink and Charlie Crist lost by even larger margins with less turnout than Gillum. If this happens, it will cement the bankruptcy of the Florida Democratic Party and probably push away many activists. Conversely, that may also open an opportunity to push for the formation of a mass labor or workers party in cities and eventually the state.
Florida has seen an explosion of activism in the last decade, much of it originating from former student organizers. The Black freedom movement, in particular, has grown significantly and developed in a more radical direction. Immigrant rights work remains uneven – heavily dominated by non-profits and weakened by large, right-wing exile communities from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and other Latin American countries.
Without the benefit of data, it’s hard to know what effect, if any, organized labor had on the election. Anecdotally, it was very difficult to mobilize our base of Teamsters to vote. For one, many part-timers and likely Gillum voters were demoralized from having their votes “not count” weeks before in the UPS contract vote. But another factor – the low credibility of the union’s endorsement with the membership – also made things difficult. Many militants who voted no on the UPS contract see the union, locally and internationally, as having so little credibility that they vote the opposite way the union suggests, almost as a matter of reflex. Combined with the very poor political education done by our Teamster leadership and their coddling of reactionary attitudes by high-seniority white workers, I have no doubt that a large amount of the Teamsters who did vote went for DeSantis.
DeSantis’ win over Gillum – and to a much lesser extent Scott’s win over Nelson – reveals that the contradiction between Florida’s rural counties and its urban centers continues to deepen. In general, the GOP has represented big business in the cities and the Dixie capitalists of the rural counties. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, represents the state’s finance sector, real estate and commercial developers, and some key parts of the tourist industry – all located in the state’s metropolitan centers.
Both candidates won their respective nominations by defeating others backed by their party’s traditional capitalist supporters. Gillum drew major donations from liberal billionaires like Tom Steyer and George Soros, the bete-noire of the far-right, but he was by no means the choice of the establishment Democrats. DeSantis, too, won the GOP nomination without Big Sugar and large agricultural companies, who backed his opponent. But while Gillum’s victory represented a popular upsurge, DeSantis’ win was more a top-down affair orchestrated by Trump.
As the third-largest state in the U.S. by population, Florida and its 27 electoral votes will continue to play a large role in presidential elections and primaries. Socialists in Florida should carefully consider the field of Democratic presidential candidates in 2020. While unsuccessful, Gillum’s unlikely primary win and electrifying campaign proved that a large mass base of African Americans, Latinos and young workers of all nationalities exists in Florida that support a progressive program. If Bernie Sanders or a similar ‘democratic socialist’ runs, mobilizing that mass base could make the difference between winning the nomination and not.
The unprecedented voter turnout in Duval County that won it for Gillum has many in the Democratic Party convinced that they can win the 2019 mayor and city council elections. GOP Mayor Lenny Curry and Sheriff Mike Williams claimed wins on election day for endorsing their fellow Trump acolyte, DeSantis, early on. But while both may curry favors from the governor’s mansion for their loyalty, they could easily find themselves out of office in the next year if the same voters return to the polls.
Significantly, Gillum won Duval County by both driving up turnout in the city’s Black community – heavily concentrated on the Northside – but also by flipping key precincts on the Westside, including some majority white, working-class precincts. It suggests that Gillum’s platform, which avoided typical centrist issues in favor of more direct appeals to the working class (health insurance, raising wages, criminal injustice reform), resonated with younger workers of all nationalities in Jacksonville.
With its large, struggling, multinational working class and its enormous Black community, Jacksonville has the potential to become a major site of class struggle in Florida. It’s impossible to imagine a successful mass workers party, even locally, without the support of a major section of organized labor. But if Jacksonville’s unions pursued a third party in alliance with the city’s Black community, it’s equally impossible to imagine they wouldn’t make huge inroads.