Less than 24 hours into Florida’s gubernatorial election, the newly minted Republican nominee went on live television and urged his state not to “monkey this up,” by electing his Democratic opponent, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), an acolyte of President Trump, referred to Andrew Gillum as “an articulate spokesman,” and told Fox News: “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That’s not going to work, that’s not going to be good for Florida.”
The comment, aimed at what could be the Sunshine State’s first African-American governor, drew outcries and even prompted a separate Fox News host to say, “We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he has since clarified his statement.”
The clarification from DeSantis’ camp was that the candidate “was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses,” according to his spokesman Stephen Lawson. “To characterize it as anything else is absurd.”
But that did nothing to assuage Democrats across the country who are readying themselves for a potentially ugly campaign season they think will be filled with race-baiting attacks and accusations. They see a climate, encouraged in part by the success of President Trump’s campaign, where dog-whistles and implicit references to race and ethnicity will be the norm in advertisements and candidate strategy. This could be especially pronounced with the wide swath of diverse candidates the Democratic party has recruited this cycle—a byproduct itself of Trump’s own divide-and-conquer rhetoric.
“Unfortunately, this is the world that Donald Trump has unleashed, a place where, because of the color of your skin, you can be assumed to be nefarious,” Abdul El-Sayed, who was a progressive Democratic candidate for governor in Michigan, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “And that your job is to prove that you’re not.”
El-Sayed, a Muslim doctor, faced false accusations throughout his campaign from a Republican state senator in Michigan, that he had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. His best advice for fellow candidates like Gillum is to keep talking about the issues that matter to them and avoid the rest of the noise.
As El-Sayed confronted derogatory accusations about his religion head on, he was surprised to discover that voters in the state were largely unmoved by charges and that he would often be pleasantly surprised about the warm reception he received from voters he might have assumed would question his presence in the race.
In one particular instance, his campaign was stopping for gas in upstate Michigan when a man got out of a pickup truck and asked the candidate if he was Abdul El-Sayed.
“He said, ‘Well hey, let me tell you, I’m so excited about what you’re doing,’” El-Sayed told The Daily Beast, somewhat taken aback, fearing that the person may have had something negative to say.
“I’m proud of people like Andrew,” he continued. “It’s terrible that he has to fight against this kind of thing. His success in Florida is going to show that this kind of approach is not going to work.”
Gillum, for his part, has attempted to stay above the fray, trying to pivot to his talking points and telling MSNBC on Thursday that DeSantis “doesn't need to apologize to me, he needs to apologize to Florida voters. If he thinks those shenanigans will be persuasive enough in this midterm election, to turn this their way, I think he's badly mistaken.”
His campaign did not offer anything further to The Daily Beast.
DeSantis is not alone in thinking he is being misinterpreted in his remarks though. A Republican operative, requesting to speak on background about the back-and-forth told The Daily Beast “I think it’s pretty desperate that Democrats are having to resort to these ridiculous attacks in order to win elections.”
Other campaigns for minority candidates have not viewed the Florida fracas as an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of the new environment they face. In Maryland, where former NAACP president Ben Jealous is taking on incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, his campaign has charged that the Republican Governors’ Association is running race-baiting ads.
“They made his complexion darker than it is,” Kevin Harris, a spokesperson for the campaign told The Daily Beast. “They used the term ‘socialist’ as sort of a proxy to communicate to voters that he’s different and you should be afraid of him.”
He said the ads, including one talking about Jealous proposing higher taxes for Maryland residents, “were designed to portray Ben as an angry black man,” and referenced an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun agreeing with this view.
The Republican Governors' Association countered that this assertion was preposterous.
“That is a ridiculous charge and they are flat out wrong,” RGA communications director Jon Thompson told The Daily Beast. “The ads focus on issues that are important to the wallets and pocketbooks of Maryland taxpayers—including Ben Jealous's support for a radical healthcare system that would cost $32 trillion and require significant tax hikes. Maryland voters deserve to know the truth about Ben Jealous's radical high-tax, anti-jobs policies.”
In hard-fought congressional races, where Democrats are hoping to flip seats, the tacit racial fault lines are playing out as well. Earlier this week, the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), launched an ad in New York’s 19th District against Democratic candidate Antonio Delgado.
It blasts the African-American Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law School graduate as “radical and extreme,” and uses music he released in a hip-hop album in 2007 to present the case. This line of attack has been fairly common in the district, even leading a professor at State University of New York at New Paltz to issue an apology after telling The New York Times: “Is a guy who makes a rap album the kind of guy who lives here in rural New York and reflects our lifestyle and values?”
A more recent Congressional Leadership Fund spot targets Democrat Aftab Pureval, a man of Indian-Tibetan descent who is challenging incumbent Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. The ad attempts to tie Pureval to his law firm White & Case’s work for Libya and features images of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing, which prompted Democrats like Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, to call it “racist.”
“Clearly Mr. Pureval is trying to distract voters from knowing the truth about his D.C. lobbying firm making millions by helping the Libyan terrorist government and hurting American families,” CLF spokesperson Andrea Bozek told The Daily Beast. “The New York Times clearly lays out that White & Case was hired to reduce payments to American families who were killed by terrorists.”
While, according to The New York Times, it is true that White & Case was retained by Libya in an attempt to seek an exemption to compensate victims of terrorism, Pureval, who is 35 years old, was a child at the time of the attack featured in the ad.
"The ad is false,” Pureval’s campaign manager Sarah Topy told The Daily Beast. “Aftab never worked on any matters connected with Libya, he never worked as a lobbyist, and he was six years old at the time of the events in the ad.”
The campaign also pointed to the fact that Chabot voted for the 2008 Libyan Claims Resolution Act and that Pureval only joined the firm after that vote, which accepted a $1.5 billion settlement for American victims of Libyan terror.
Even as Republicans have publicly argued that the economy and tax reform will carry them to victory in November—still a conceivable possibility—the president himself appears to be more keen on using this same kind of fear tactic as a mechanism to turn out voters.
In a recent meeting with evangelical leaders, he reportedly argued that Democrats “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently.”