Fact-checking the Florida candidates for governor and U.S. Senate

Andrew Gillum supporters Richard Lopez and Mara Cooper watch the screen as election results come in showing their candidate winning the Democratic primary for governor on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Andrew Gillum supporters Richard Lopez and Mara Cooper watch the screen as election results come in showing their candidate winning the Democratic primary for governor on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

The stage is set for a battle of polar opposites in Florida’s race for governor.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum pulled off an upset in the crowded Democratic primary for governor. He will face Republican Ron DeSantis, a congressman who can attribute much of his victory to early support from President Donald Trump.

Their battle for the November election will happen in a state that Barack Obama won twice and Trump won in 2016.  

DeSantis is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which was blamed for the federal government shutdown in 2013 over opposition to Obamacare. His support by Trump helped him trounce Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who had a two-decade resume as a politician, by 20 percentage points.

Gillum was backed by progressives including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and a late infusion of cash from billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros. Gillum has promised to inject $1 billion into education and supports Medicare for All and Trump’s impeachment. He beat former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who was a centrist.

Florida’s U.S. Senate race has drawn national attention as Democrats attempt to take back the Senate. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the only statewide Democrat, faces a tough challenge from term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Governor’s race

DeSantis has emphasized his conservative credentials and military career, but it was the support by Trump that turned the race around in his favor.

In December, Trump tweeted praise of DeSantis, a Harvard law graduate and Navy JAG officer who served in Iraq. Trump later tweeted his endorsement and rallied for DeSantis in Tampa. DeSantis first won a northeastern Florida seat in Congress in 2012.

DeSantis is expected to continue his messages about being tough on illegal immigration and a watchdog for government spending. He will attack Gillum’s record as mayor of Tallahassee, which includes an ongoing FBI investigation of possible corruption at city hall related to development deals. No one has been charged and Gillum has said the FBI told him he's not the focus of the investigation. However, lobbyist Adam Corey, who appears to be at the center of the FBI, was a longtime Gillum friend and ally until Gillum cut ties with him last year, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Gillum has emphasized his working class roots. His mother drove a school bus and his father was a construction worker. At the age of 23, Gillum was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003. He was elected mayor in 2014.

Gillum has aligned with the left of his party on federal issues including Medicare for All, which would provide the federal health care plan to everyone. He has opposed Florida’s "stand your ground" self-defense law and called for an increase in the minimum wage.

If elected, Gillum would be Florida’s first African-American governor. He is poised to run a campaign that appeals to both African-American voters and progressive whites. Both candidates will try to lure Hispanic voters, though Republicans tend to court South Florida Cubans while Democrats typically reach out more to Central Florida Puerto Ricans. Whites represent about 64 percent of voters, 16 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Expect Gillum and DeSantis to weigh in on environmental issues this year as Florida suffers from an algae bloom crisis.

Key fact-checks so far

DeSantis: Says John Brennan "was a member of the Communist Party during the Cold War." Mostly False

DeSantis: "The bulk of the problem with the opioid epidemic is the fentanyl and all the synthetic drugs coming across the southern border." Half True

DeSantis: In one year, the United Nations "did 24 resolutions and 20 of them were against Israel." False

Gillum: "Under his leadership, Tallahassee reduced its carbon intensity by roughly 40 percent." False

Gillum: Says his campaign has received donations from "more than 7,000 contributors." Mostly False

Putnam: Says Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum "wants to make Florida not a sanctuary city but a sanctuary state." Half True

U.S. Senate

Scott easily won his primary against a little-known candidate. Nelson didn’t face an opponent.

Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 and has been a familiar fixture of Florida politics for decades. Before serving in the Senate, Nelson was a member of the U.S. House from 1979 to 1990. Nelson’s long history as a lawmaker is why Scott criticizes him for being a career politician. Nelson’s supporters, however, pushed back on that characterization — claiming that Nelson is actually one Florida’s most independent senators. (Half True.)

Scott is the two-term incumbent governor of Florida. When he announced his bid for Senate, he promised to shake up Washington and has emphasized his promise, largely fulfilled, to create 700,000 jobs in seven years. Scott is also known for his prior tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA, a hospital company, where he quit in 1997 shortly after federal agents went public with an investigation into the company that later led to a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.

Scott has portrayed Nelson as "confused" following his comments in August alleging that Russia was hacking Florida election records. When pressed to reveal his evidence, Scott has said "that’s classified." Federal, state and local election officials have said they have no evidence of hacking.

Key fact-checks so far:

Florida Democratic Party: Says Scott "cut $700 million from water management." Mostly True

Nelson: Says detained immigrant parents separated from their children at the border are being charged "as much as $8 a minute to call their children." Mostly False

Scott: Says Nelson "voted for higher taxes" 349 times. False

Republican Party of Florida: "Out of 860 bills (Sen. Bill Nelson has) introduced in Congress, only 10 have passed." Mostly False