When Andrew Gillum launched his bid for the 2018 governor’s race in Florida, America’s largest battleground state, Democratic party leaders wrote off the 39-year-old progressive mayor of Tallahassee.
The party establishment had coalesced behind the former congresswoman Gwen Graham, who over the next 17 months would remain the frontrunner in most polls – while Gillum was poised to finish fourth in a crowded field.
But Florida voters had other ideas: on Tuesday, Gillum pulled off a stunning upset and emerged as the Democratic nominee in what will be one of the most closely watched contests of the 2018 midterm elections.
In doing so, Gillum also became Florida’s first black nominee for governor and joined the ranks of other Democrats seeking to make history in a breakthrough year for candidates of color.
Stacey Abrams, a former state legislator, is vying to become the country’s first black female governor, in neighboring Georgia, while Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, hopes to become the first black governor in the state of Maryland. Only two black governors have ever been elected in the United States.
The success of black candidates comes at a time when Donald Trump has stoked racial tensions from the office of the presidency, teeing up a stark contrast between the two parties in both representation and tone.
In addition to people of color, a record number of women, Muslims and LGBT candidates are running for elected office – most of them as Democrats.
They have railed against Trump’s policies on immigration – from his travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries to his policy of separating families at the border – at the same time that Republicans on the ballot are issuing dark warnings about MS-13, gang violence and crime.
Both parties are betting on a surge in turnout as Americans head to the polls on 6 November. Their fate may well be determined by who wins out between an increasingly diverse electorate and Trump’s nationalist base.
“Now that you have Trump in office, who is a direct and material and tangible threat to the safety and citizenship and the health and the finances of nonwhite people in America, you have people more driven to engage in voting than they have been in their lifetimes,” said Jason Johnson, a professor of political science and communications at Morgan State University.
Gillum’s victory in Florida’s gubernatorial primary was aided in large part by young voters and African Americans, who turned out heavily in his favor. The results marked the fruition of a strategy rooted in appealing to demographics often discounted in midterms.
Susan MacManus, a retired University of South Florida political science professor, said Gillum “bucked the normal pattern of campaigning in a primary”.
“From the get-go, it was clear that his strategy was to try to appeal to minority voters and younger voters,” she said.
“There’s been some articulation among black candidates and black activists that the Democratic party was taking them for granted and just assuming they would vote.”
Gillum campaigned on college campuses and at black churches, and was the only Democratic candidate to show up at an NAACP forum in Tampa just over a week before the Florida primary. He garnered support from black activists.
“African American voters are starting to realize the importance of non-presidential elections and really stepping up the involvement in terms of turnout and advocacy,” said Jamal Watkins, the vice-president of civic engagement for the NAACP.
“That’s a game-changer.”
The push among minority voters to expend their political capital was not simply about representation, Watkins added, but issues that range from job security to access to healthcare and education.