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Key Battleground State Florida Was A Firewall For Republicans


Republicans prevailed in a big race in Florida. Ron DeSantis won the governor's seat with help from President Trump. The president flew into the state the final weekend to tell Floridians that Andrew Gillum, seeking to become the state's first black governor, was, quote, "just not equipped" for the job. NPR has not formally called the Senate race in Florida, though Republican Rick Scott appears to have a narrow lead. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Pensacola. Hi there, Debbie.


INSKEEP: What's the win mean for DeSantis?

ELLIOTT: Well, I think it means that this is a win for President Trump. You know, Trump came out early endorsing DeSantis over a better funded and more well-known Republican contender, and DeSantis acknowledged that in his victory speech last night.


RON DESANTIS: I'd like to thank our president for standing by me when...


DESANTIS: ...For standing by me when it wasn't necessarily the smart thing to do.

ELLIOTT: Now, DeSantis is a former Republican congressman and Navy officer aligned with Trump on a host of issues, notably immigration. Democrat Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee, ran a very progressive campaign. So they - you know, talking about universal Medicare, for example. So they were very apart - you know, you could say - on either extreme, in a state like Florida, where usually candidates are trying to go for those independent voters in the middle. So this was different.

INSKEEP: Florida, as people will say, is almost like several states. Just try to drive it. It's pretty big.

ELLIOTT: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: If you're in South Florida, you get lots of - lots of Democratic votes. Central Florida - different parts can go different ways. And then there's the Panhandle, which is where Gillum was from, but it's mostly Republican. And you were there. What did you hear when you were talking with voters last night?

ELLIOTT: Well, I'm here in Pensacola, yes. I watched the returns with the Escambia County Republican Party Executive Committee, you could say. We were literally in a smoke-filled room. We were in a cigar lounge at the local Gulf Coast Brewery.

INSKEEP: Did you have a cigar, Debbie?

ELLIOTT: I did not.

INSKEEP: OK, go on.

ELLIOTT: But I might as well have. It was very smoky. Here's Kevin Brown. He is the chairman of the local GOP - just very pleased with the way things went last night.

KEVIN BROWN: I think you can put your highwaters up because the blue wave didn't make it to Florida. State of Florida has been red, and it is going to continue to stay red.

ELLIOTT: You know, Democrats thought they had their best shot at making gains in Florida yesterday. You know, Republicans have had control of the governorship and the Florida legislature for 20 years now. Local Democrats were very disheartened and disillusioned when I spoke with them last night.

You know, they did pick up a couple of South Florida Congressional seats - we heard Donna Shalala earlier. But the bigger picture is that they lost key statewide races, perhaps including Bill Nelson's Senate seat - too close to call right now. But that's the lone statewide office that had remained in Democratic control here.

INSKEEP: Yet I get the sense that the next election may have a somewhat different electorate in Florida because of a ballot initiative that passed last night.

ELLIOTT: Yes, voters approved an amendment to automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time or are put on probation. Now, there are exceptions for people who were convicted of sexual offenses and murder. But still, you're talking about potentially 1.5 million people coming onto the voter rolls.

INSKEEP: One-and-a-half million people who had been banned for life from voting. Debbie, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.