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Tom Steyer to Spend Millions Backing Andrew Gillum in Florida

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Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor and Democratic activist, has directed his political operation to spend more than $5 million aiding Andrew Gillum’s campaign for governor of Florida, an enormous investment that will test whether fired-up Democratic voters can flip control of a state long dominated by Republicans.

The campaign between Mr. Gillum, who is the progressive mayor of Tallahassee, and Representative Ron DeSantis, a conservative lawmaker who has aligned himself closely with the White House, has become one of the clearest contests of strength nationwide between the Democratic Party’s rising liberal wing and the Republican Party as President Trump has reshaped it.

Mr. Steyer, who is based in California and has crusaded since last year for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, said in an interview that he would spend more money in Florida this fall than any other state. He endorsed Mr. Gillum, 39, in the Democratic primary, and hailed him as a model for the national Democratic Party. In the interview, Mr. Steyer praised Mr. Gillum for having endorsed impeachment, though he said that had not been a “litmus test” for his support.

“He’s a fierce gun control person, he’s been a climate champion,” Mr. Steyer said of Mr. Gillum, adding: “He’s called for the impeachment of the president. He’s been willing to talk plainly to Florida voters, and they’ve responded.”

Mr. Steyer, 61, said his spending in the state would be geared heavily toward mobilizing young people and minorities to vote, rather than courting undecided voters in the political center, whose existence he said he questioned.

“I don’t even accept this idea, if you’ll excuse my saying this, of voters in the middle,” Mr. Steyer said.

Mr. Gillum has held a slim lead over Mr. DeSantis in public polls since the Florida primary last month, and Mr. DeSantis has struggled to move past a series of racial controversies involving him and his political supporters. The morning after the August 28 primary, Mr. DeSantis warned on Fox News that Floridians should not “monkey this up” by electing a liberal like Mr. Gillum, in what many took as a racial slur against a candidate who would be Florida’s first black governor. He described it as an inept turn of phrase.

But Florida has not elected a Democratic governor this century, and Mr. Trump remains more popular there than in the country as a whole. And Mr. DeSantis has benefited from a powerful infusion of funds by national Republican committees. The leading group among them, the Republican Governors Association, has committed to spending some $20 million for Mr. DeSantis, and has already been running ads branding Mr. Gillum as “too radical” for Florida and linking him to a federal investigation of influence-trading in Tallahassee. Mr. Gillum has said he is not a target of any investigation.

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Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said Mr. Gillum’s alliance with Mr. Steyer was further proof of Mr. Gillum’s hard-line politics.

“By embracing California billionaire Tom Steyer and his unpopular obsession with impeachment, Andrew Gillum is once again demonstrating to Florida voters that his radical campaign is too extreme and too out of touch,” Mr. Thompson said.

Advisers to Mr. Steyer said he would spend about $5.2 million on the governor’s race, with about half going to digital advertising. Most of the rest — nearly $2 million — would go into voter-turnout efforts by two organizations backed by Mr. Steyer, For Our Future and NextGen America.

Mr. Steyer and Mr. Gillum are slated to appear together at a campaign event in Florida this weekend.

Mr. Steyer’s extended foray into Florida politics will test his personal strategy for the Democratic Party’s comeback, as well as the reach of the millennial-powered left more broadly. Mr. Steyer and his aides said that they had foreseen a path to victory for Mr. Gillum in the Democratic primary, despite his underdog status, because of his distinctive appeal to young people and African-American voters. Mr. Steyer spent about $1.4 million to drum up turnout in the primary election, including with campaign mail and digital advertising that his advisers concluded was effective.

Mr. Gillum earned 34 percent of the vote in the primary, three points ahead of the second-place finisher, the former congresswoman Gwen Graham.

Mr. Steyer made his personal fortune as a hedge fund manager and has emerged over the last decade as one of the Democratic Party’s biggest benefactors. He has considered running for office in California and has not ruled out a campaign for president in 2020, so the Florida race is also an opportunity to forge an alliance with a man who, if he wins the governorship, would instantly become among the most important leaders in the Democratic Party.

The F.B.I. has for several years been scrutinizing Tallahassee’s city government for alleged corruption, and Mr. Gillum has said he has been told he is a not a target of that investigation. Mr. Steyer said he had never asked Mr. Gillum about the federal investigation, but he said his advisers had conducted research during the primary campaign and found nothing concerning.

“If it works in 2018 for Andrew Gillum, it will work in ’18 for Senator Nelson,” Mr. Steyer said of his turnout strategy, and the state’s Democratic incumbent senator. “It will work in the legislature and up and down the ballot.”


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