Joe Henderson: What if Gwen Graham had been elected Governor in 2018?


As the state prepares for the Primary Election, let’s take a trip in the Way Back Machine. Around this time in 2018, it looked like Gwen Graham would be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Although multiple polls often gave conflicting information, Graham — the daughter of Democratic icon Bob Graham — was peaking at the right time. At least that’s what conventional wisdom indicated.

A week before the Primary, a Florida Atlantic University poll gave Graham a 12-point lead over her closest rival, Philip Levine.

What followed, however, showed the folly of presumption.

Then-Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the only Black candidate in the race, had a plan. He closed with a last-week blitz in four counties with the highest percentage of Black voters in the state — Duval, Orange, Broward, and Miami-Dade.

While Graham stuck with a centrist message, Gillum relentlessly pushed progressive ideas. The strategy worked. Voters in those four counties overwhelmingly went for Gillum, and he beat Graham by about 45,000 votes to win the nomination.

Once again, Lucy pulled the football before Democrats could complete the kick and win the Governor’s race for the first time in this century. Gillum ran a poor campaign after the Primary, dogged by rumors of scandal and incompetence.

He dropped a razor-thin race to Ron DeSantis, and Florida embarked on what has increasingly become the iron-fisted rule of a Governor who tolerates no dissent.

It’s worth wondering what Florida would look like today had Graham won that Primary.

It’s pure speculation, of course, but she likely would have run a better campaign than Gillum. And while Donald Trump endorsed DeSantis, it’s worth remembering that independent voters decide these races, and Trump had big issues there.

The odds are good that Graham would have beaten DeSantis.

Had that happened, Florida would likely have remained a purple state instead of the crimson-hued place it is today.

Graham certainly would have vetoed the harsh anti-abortion law the GOP-led Legislature cooked up with DeSantis’ connivance this year.

She would be governing instead of auditioning for a 2024 White House run.

And what of DeSantis?

We saw his act shortly after the Primary when he warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing a Black Governor. DeSantis said no, no, no, he didn’t mean anything racist.

His actions as Governor bring that assertion into question. Race seems to be at the center of many of DeSantis’ ideas.

The voter suppression laws — excuse me, “security” — DeSantis championed would never have happened.

There would be no “anti-riot” bill that he dreamed up after the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death. Schools and employers wouldn’t have to grapple with his possibly illegal “anti-WOKE” legislation.

Graham would have blocked GOP efforts to subvert the right of felons to regain their voting rights.

Florida’s congressional districts would have been more equitable than DeSantis’s gerrymandered red-blitz. Remember, DeSantis vetoed the original maps the Legislature sent him, maps even Democrats said were fair.

Now, they’re not fair.

By losing, DeSantis would likely have faded into the obscurity he had until Trump caught his act on Fox News and gave his career a rocket boost.

The U.S. Senate might look different, too.

Bill Nelson lost a tight race to Rick Scott, but he might have had enough oomph with a stronger Democrat at the top of the ticket. Now, Scott proposed raising income taxes on the poorest Americans. He also recommended sunsetting safety nets like Social Security and Medicare after five years.

Nikki Fried, elected as Agriculture Commissioner in 2018, wouldn’t be running for Governor now. Charlie Crist would have stayed in a safe U.S. House seat that now could turn red.

Graham, the centrist, would have been the check on one-party excess.

And DeSantis wouldn’t look forward to four more years — well, maybe two — as Florida’s Governor.

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