March 21, 2019 / 1:45 AM / 5 months ago

Florida's Gillum leads registration drive to help Democrats win back state

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Andrew Gillum, a rising Democratic star who narrowly lost to a Republican in the 2018 election for Florida governor, on Wednesday set a goal of registering 1 million voters to help his party win the battleground state in the 2020 presidential contest.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum concedes the Florida Governor's race to U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis as Gillum's wife R. Jai (R) wipes away tears and his running mate Chris King and King's wife Kristin look on at his midterm election night rally in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

Gillum’s announcement signals that he will not join the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders or immediately seek another elected office.

The 39-year-old former mayor of state capital Tallahassee said he would be working with the political group “Bring It Home,” named after a signature refrain of his campaign, to register voters.

“Are you all ready to flip Florida blue? Or better yet are you ready to flip the United States blue?” Gillum asked a cheering crowd at a livestreamed event in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Florida is seen as crucial to President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes after his 2016 victory there by about one percentage point. Trump won after Florida voters had twice favoured Democratic President Barack Obama in close elections.

Gillum lost to Republican Ron DeSantis by about 33,000 votes, or 0.4 percent of ballots cast, in a race so close a recount was ordered. Trump repeatedly campaigned for the conservative former congressman.

Gillum sought to become the state’s first African-American governor on a staunchly liberal platform, winning strong support among black voters and in many metropolitan areas.

But Gillum and Bill Nelson, the state’s Democratic former U.S. Senator, were outdone by the Republican performance, especially among white voters and outside of the major cities, state party executive director Juan Peñalosa told activists last month.

Nelson lost by a razor-thin 10,000 votes to then Republican Governor Rick Scott.

Political analysts have noted the state’s multi-national Hispanic vote also did not show up for Democrats as strongly as the party may have needed.

Florida Democrats have identified lagging voter registration as a crucial failing. Since Obama’s final election, Democrats have seen their historic advantage over Republicans in voter registration numbers slip from about 550,000 more voters in 2012 to fewer than 250,000 currently, state records show.

Meanwhile, Florida Republicans last year credited their voter registration drives with flipping the partisan balance in many smaller counties and laying the groundwork for their wins.

Gillum’s effort is the latest by Democrats to do better. Also on Wednesday, the Florida Democratic Party said it planned to spend $2 million (£1.5 million) to register 200,000 Democrats over the coming year. By contrast, the party registered fewer than 7,400 voters in 2017, it has said.

Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Grant McCool

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