Former Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis rode President Donald Trump's backing to victory in the governor's race Tuesday, defeating Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. Gov. Rick Scott, who also received Trump's support, led incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Belson in race that was too close to call as of midnight Wednesday, according to an NBC News projection.
DeSantis, 40, was considered an underdog before Trump tweeted his support for DeSantis in December, a month before he got into the race. Trump campaigned to help push DeSantis to a primary victory in August and came to Florida two more times to propel him past Gillum in the final days of the election.
The win maintained the grip Republicans have had on the governor's office since Jeb Bush was sworn in in 1999, and DeSantis will have a chance to return the favor for Trump in 2020, when Florida figures to play a pivotal role in the presidential election.
"I sincerely regret that I couldn’t bring it home for you, but I can guarantee you this: I'm not going anywhere. We're going to fight," Gillum told the crowd gathered on the campus of Florida A&M University as he conceded late Tuesday.
Gilliam, 39, urged supporters not give up the fight and pledged to remain on the "front lines" of the political struggle to claim a seat at the table.
"We still have to show up every single day and demand our seat at the table [of power]," he said. "We have to be willing, inside and outside elections, to say that our voices still matter. That we still have relevance.
Gillum had been trying to become the state's first African-American governor and the first Democrat elected to the office since 1994.
Meanwhile, Scott declared victory over the three-term Democratic Sen. Nelson, likely ending the political career of one of Florida's longest serving officeholders. NBC News had not yet called the race. Scott's lead over Nelson was less than a percentage point.
"This is obviously not the result Senator Nelson's campaign has worked hard for," the spokesperson said. "The senator will be making a full statement tomorrow to thank all those who rallied for his cause."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that President Trump had made congratulatory calls to winning Republican Senate candidates, including Scott.
Nelson was a congressman from 1979 to 1991. From 1995 to 2001, he served in state government before his Senate election in 2000.
The wealthy former hospital executive, who entered politics as part of the 2010 tea party movement, poured $60 million of his own money into the race.
It's was a largely negative campaign, with Scott depicting Nelson as a confused, empty-suit politician who has achieved little in his time in Washington. Nelson has criticized Scott as an untrustworthy Trump supporter who has used the governor's office to increase his wealth. His supporters also hit Scott for the state's environmental problems, calling his "Red Tide Rick" for the deadly algae that has killed millions of fish off the Florida coasts.
DeSantis ran as a political outsider despite serving three terms in Congress and running for U.S. Senate in 2016 before dropping out of the race when Republican Sen. Marco Rubio decided to run for re-election. The race was the third office he's sought in two years: his re-election, Senate and governor.
DeSantis is a former Navy officer who graduated from Yale University, where he was the school's baseball captain, before getting his law degree at Harvard University.
He gained name recognition during the primary with more than 100 appearances on Fox News, usually to defend the president, but didn't lay out a clear agenda on what he'd do if elected until after the primary.
DeSantis ran a largely negative campaign, calling Gillum a socialist and saying he oversaw one of the most corrupt and crime-ridden cities in the state. Trump joined in, tweeting similar messages. The corruption allegation stemmed from a continuing FBI investigation into City Hall that Gillum has said he is not a target of and is cooperating with; the charge that Tallahassee had the state's highest crime rate was false.
DeSantis also criticized Gillum for signing a pledge for the civil rights group Dream Defenders. The pledge was a promise not to take money from private prisons or the National Rifle Association, but the group is also critical of the justice system, saying police and prisons are racist.
Gillum portrayed DeSantis as racially divisive, repeatedly pointing out his "monkey this up" comment and noting that a major DeSantis contributor called former President Barack Obama the N-word on Twitter and DeSantis refused to return his money. Gillum even spelled out the slur during a debate.
"I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist," Gillum said.
DeSantis tried to connect with working-class families by pointing out in campaign ads that his first job paid $6 an hour and that he later traded in his work boots for military boots, highlighting his service in Iraq. DeSantis also spent time at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Although DeSantis heavily emphasized his support of Trump before the primary, he scrubbed his campaign website of most Trump references and toned down his association with the president through most of the general election. That changed in the final week, when Trump helped drive out Republican supporters.