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Gov. Rick Scott, left, shakes hands with gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis as he introduces him to supporters at Republican rally Thursday.

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Joe Henderson: GOP’s midterm election negativity was nonstop

The pundits got it wrong on Florida’s midterm elections.

With Election Day dead ahead, it’s not so much about the choice of Democrat Andrew Gillum’s progressive agenda in the Governor’s race against the conservatism of Republican Ron DeSantis.

Nor, in the U.S. Senate race, are voters deciding Rick Scott’s pro-jobs record against Bill Nelson’s approach to the environment and health care.

Nope.

At least for the races at the top of the ballot, this has been a campaign of fear and loathing vs. hope and promise.

If you’ve been exposed to campaign pitches from both sides, I don’t have to explain which one has been peddling fear and which one is offering positive change.

Gillum has promised to take on the NRA, push for health care expansion, more money for teachers and schools, and higher corporate taxes to pay for it.

DeSantis warned that Gillum would “monkey up” the state’s economy and immediately was widely criticized for using a racist term.

DeSantis made it worse by saying no, that wasn’t racist. It’s just a common expression (that no one seems to have heard before).

Scott has relentlessly pounded Nelson as a career, do-nothing politician who votes the Democratic Party line with regularity and rarely shows up to work. And a PAC that supports Scott even managed to sneak in a dog whistle about Nelson’s age, which is 76, with this line in a commercial that is getting a lot of airtime: “The poor man seems more and more confused.”

Really? Did they go there?

Yes, they did.

Now, we pause a moment and note that most polls give the edges to Gillum and Nelson – although both Florida midterm elections are expected to be close.

But what if, instead of trying to paint their opponents as the offspring of Darth Vader, DeSantis and Scott had taken a different path? They might not have sent no party-affiliation voters stampeding in large numbers to the blue side of the street.

Most Floridians really don’t know DeSantis, other than his appearances on Fox News that earned him the support of President Trump. He didn’t have much to say about what he would do if elected Governor, although in a long-running ad campaign he was happy to highlight his participation on the Dunedin team that went to the 1991 Little League World Series.

Yay.

The only thing missing from that was Bruce Springsteen singing “Glory Days” – you know, times slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of … yeah, that.

Instead of saying how Gillum would destroy the state, DeSantis could have stressed why his plan – assuming he had one – would be best. He didn’t do that nearly enough to cut past the steady lava flow of negativity his campaign was producing.

He also got rattled and snippy during a debate with Gillum about accepting support from a supporter identified with white nationalists.

And Scott, well, I just don’t understand his line of attack.

He didn’t play to his strength as a job creator nearly enough, even though that was what got him elected Governor two times. And his disdain for environmental regulations while in office came back to bite him when Nelson’s campaign seized the opening and tagged him with the recent red tide debacle.

To be sure, Nelson didn’t exactly run an inspired campaign.

The commercial about his 1986 trip as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle was about as relevant to the current campaign as DeSantis’ youth league baseball exploits, but I believe Nelson is benefitting from the enthusiasm that appears to be surrounding the Gillum campaign.

Gillum seems to have the wind at his back just now, but it’s only a hunch. If it is as tight as some polls project, no one can be really surprised however this turns out.

This much is true, though: DeSantis doesn’t seem to have generated enthusiasm beyond his base in the way Gillum has. Gillum will win if all those who seemed inspired by his story actually vote. We won’t know that until Tuesday.

Here’s what we do know now: While negative ads have been a standard part of political campaigns for decades and will continue to be, I think DeSantis and Scott took it to the next level this year.

If both men lose, it may be the voters’ way of saying: We’ve had enough of that.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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