BY BRENDAN FARRINGTON and MIKE SCHNEIDER
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Former Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis put his thanks squarely where it was due after declaring victory in Florida’s governor election: President Donald Trump.
DeSantis defeated Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who was hoping to be Florida’s first black governor and the first Democrat elected governor since 1994, largely on the backing of the president.
“I’d like to thank our president for standing by me, for standing by me when it wasn’t necessarily the smart thing,” DeSantis said late Tuesday night as he won another close Florida election. “Mr. President, I look forward to working with you to advance Florida’s priorities.”
The win stretches Republican’s winning streak for governor at seven in a row, and the Capitol will enter its third decade under complete Republican rule when DeSantis takes office in January.
Gillum had built a lot of enthusiasm around his campaign and led in most polls leading up to the final week of the election. But that’s when Trump came to Florida — twice — to boost turnout for DeSantis.
It’s the second time this year Trump’s arrival in Florida helped save DeSantis, who was considered an underdog when he entered the governor’s race in January against a better-known and better funded Republican opponent.
But Trump injected himself into the race, tweeting his support for DeSantis and holding a rally for him before the primary. DeSantis easily defeated Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam despite failing to lay out a plan of what he would do if elected.
DeSantis, 40, enjoyed proving his doubters wrong.
He told supports the “political and media classes” had been eager to write his political obituary.
“On Election Day, it’s the voice of the people that roars,” DeSantis said. Election Day “is the one day the elites don’t call the shots … and they don’t set the agenda.”
DeSantis ran as a political outsider despite serving three terms in Congress and running for U.S. Senate in 2016 before dropping out of the race when Republican Sen. Marco Rubio decided to run for re-election.
“Ron DeSantis has made a career out of protecting citizens. He did it in the military, he did it as a prosecutor and now he will do it as governor,” said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey. “We’re excited to get this thing done. It’s been a long political season.”
Gillum, 39, told his supporters he wasn’t going away.
“We have a choice to make tomorrow morning. Are we going to wake up and bask in sorrow and defeat, or are we going to get up and reassert ourselves to the mission at hand? Are we going to get up and fight for the things we believe in? Are we going to get up and say we still deserve our seat at our table?”
He choked up a bit when he made reference to his campaign slogan, “Bring it home.”
“This was from the very beginning an extremely, extremely difficult task. I sincerely regret that I couldn’t bring it home to you,” Gillum said.
After his concession speech, supporters hugged one another. Many cried.
Gillum trailed by about 1 percentage point and fewer than 80,000 votes when he conceded.
“In four years, he’ll be able to run again,” said Cindy Martin, 50, of Pensacola. “Maybe 80,000 people will wake up and say, ‘OK, we didn’t vote the last time.'”
Florida A&M student Jalen McClees said that regardless of the result, Gillum made him proud.
“The polls might say the opposite, but Andrew Gillum really won. He set the tone for us as African-Americans to do certain things,” said McClees, 18. “He inspired a lot of people, and he made a movement.”
DeSantis stumbled out of the gate after winning the Aug. 28 primary, telling Fox News that voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” by electing Gillum, who was Florida’s first black nominee for governor. Despite implications that DeSantis was racially insensitive — an idea he angrily disputed during a debate — he was able to win the state that Trump carried in 2016.
DeSantis tried to connect with working-class families by pointing out in campaign ads that his first job paid $6 an hour and that he later traded in his work boots for military boots, highlighting his service in Iraq. DeSantis also spent time at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
DeSantis told reporters after his speech that the most pressing issue he will address as governor is Florida’s water problems.
“I’ve talked to the president about this. He understands it. He cares about Florida,” DeSantis said. “And I told him some of this infrastructure needs to get going … It will be a top priority for me.”
Farrington reported from Tallahassee.
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