WEST PALM BEACH, Florida—Bill Nelson is just along for the ride.
Just a few months ago, Florida’s senior senator was floundering. He was struggling to motivate some of the minority groups, namely African-Americans and Hispanics, that are crucial for Democratic campaigns in Florida, leaving strategists concerned about whether the 76-year-old former U.S. Army captain and astronaut could fend off a challenge from the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott.
But along came Andrew Gillum—almost out of nowhere—to salvage Nelson’s political career. Gillum, a 39-year-old African-American who has served as the mayor of Tallahassee since 2014, has single-handedly lifted Democratic candidates up and down the ballot ever since his shocking victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary on August 28. His formula for success was a mix of unapologetic progressivism combined with an aggressive campaign to turn out black and Latino voters. So far, it’s working—and Nelson could ride the Gillum wave all the way to a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.
“I voted for Bill Nelson because he’s on the ticket with Andrew Gillum,” said Keith Clinkscales, a beaming 56-year-old African-American who attended Saturday’s rally specifically to see Gillum speak.
“I think it’s a positive for all of the other Democratic candidates to be on Andrew Gillum’s ticket because that just says, OK, when I go vote for Andrew, I’m going to vote for whoever he’s endorsed,” added Clinkscales, a Palm Beach-area resident. “And because I trust him, I trust that he chose Bill Nelson for a reason. I voted for [Democrats] up and down the ballot because of Gillum.”
Gillum’s presence on the ballot already appears to be helping Florida Democrats, with minority turnout already on the rise during the early-voting period. While it remains unclear whether Gillum has motivated enough disaffected Democrats like Clinkscales, Nelson has made a conscious decision to ride Gillum’s coattails in the home stretch of the campaign. Nelson has appeared alongside Gillum at several rallies and other get-out-the-vote events throughout the state.
“They play well off each other. We’ve seen an uptick in African-American and Caribbean turnout over 2014—and that will help Nelson. And Nelson has a few geographic pockets where his work will help Gillum,” Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who served as Obama’s Florida state director in 2008, told The Daily Beast. “I suspect their vote share in most places will be very close to the other.”
Remarkably, Nelson has left the headlining duties to Gillum, who introduced former President Barack Obama in Miami on Friday and Jimmy Buffett here in West Palm Beach on Saturday. That’s why voters consider Gillum—not Nelson—to be at the top of Florida Democrats’ so-called “winning ticket.”
“Most people tend to think that Bill Nelson has been around for so long that if he didn’t have someone young and vibrant as Gillum, he probably wouldn’t win,” added Clinkscales. “I haven’t been this excited since Obama ran for president. After he left office—even in the election versus Trump and Hillary—I just couldn’t get that excitement back. I feel rejuvenated and just ecstatic about Andrew Gillum. I’ve got my fire back.”
Even Nelson himself seemed to implicitly acknowledge that he’s gunning for the “Gillum bump,” telling rally-goers here: “Rather than give you a speech, I’m going to introduce Andrew Gillum.” The crowd roared as Nelson talked up Gillum, whom he has known ever since Gillum was the student-body president at Florida A&M University.
Nelson’s detractors are noticing. Just minutes after that remark on Saturday, Scott’s campaign sent an email blast taunting the longtime lawmaker: “Forty-two years in politics and Senator Nelson can’t even talk about what he’s done for Florida for 30 seconds. (It’s because he hasn’t done anything).”
Nelson’s strategy has benefited the senator, and the numbers show it. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Scott was comfortably ahead of Nelson in late August. Nelson now leads Scott by a point and a half, and a Nelson campaign official said they feel much better about minority voter turnout than they did two months ago.
Even some of Nelson’s surrogates are saying the quiet part out loud—implicitly suggesting that Nelson on his own would have trouble firing up Democrats like Clinkscales who were demoralized after 2016 and therefore unsure if they would vote in 2018.
“Listen, I know the guy’s not flashy,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) as she introduced Nelson at the Meyer Amphitheater here for a joint rally and concert with Buffett. “But I will tell you this: he is hardworking, he’s dependable, and he tells the truth.”
In many ways, though, it’s an odd pairing. Nelson has built a reputation as a centrist throughout his three decades of service in both the House and Senate; Gillum, on the other hand, has embraced a more progressive platform of creating a “Medicare for All” universal health-care program and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Nelson opposes many of the far-left policies that the party appears increasingly eager to embrace in 2020 and beyond.
“Democrats have never referred to Senator Nelson as a strong progressive because that’s just not who he is. Mayor Gillum—he’s focused on that group like a laser,” former Rep. Jim Davis (D-FL) told The Daily Beast. “Folks, I think, that come out to vote for Mayor Gillum are going to vote for Bill Nelson.”
But as the two candidates crisscross the state together, it feels to voters and strategists here more like a “passing of the torch” ritual from Nelson to Gillum. Nelson, 76, represents the old guard of the Democratic party while Gillum, 39, could position himself as a future leader in the party if he defeats Republican Ron DeSantis on Tuesday.
“They can both run comfortably with the positions that they have. And they recognize that the Democratic party is big enough to accommodate political candidates from different generations running with some key [policy] differences,” said a Florida Democratic strategist working on a campaign in the state, who was granted anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak publicly. “Each has an important stake in the success of the other.”
That’s especially true for senior citizens in Florida, among whom Nelson has a strong following, said Davis. Nelson’s embrace of Gillum is likely to shore up support for Gillum among those Democrats who are wary of the Tallahassee mayor’s more liberal positions. That kind of unity is not something Democrats here are used to, especially with two candidates whose policy views often run in contrast to each other.
“Florida has had a history that the Democrats have been a pretty surly, independent bunch. And so this has been a new development for Democrats,” said Davis, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2006. “But look, President Trump is a unifier when it comes to Democrats.”
—Gideon Resnick contributed reporting.