Sanders tests his brand in Florida

Sanders tests his brand in Florida
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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Democrats deals to bolster support for relief bill | Biden tries to keep Democrats together | Retailers fear a return of the mask wars Democrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (I-Vt.) is giving an assist to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in his uphill battle to win Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in a test of whether the progressive star’s magic can resonate in the Sunshine State.

Sanders visited Tampa and Orlando on Friday to boost Gillum, who has adopted some of the Vermont senator's highest-profile proposals — “Medicare for all” and a $15 minimum wage — into his own platform.

Gillum, 39, trails his opponents in fundraising, and several opinion polls have shown him running in fourth place behind former Rep. Gwen GrahamGwendolyn GrahamModerate Democrats now in a race against the clock Dear Iowans: Apologies for Sen. Rick Scott's lack of decency Jimmy Buffett takes musical shots at Trump during concert MORE (D-Fla.), former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and South Florida businessman Jeff Greene.

Gillum’s supporters, however, argue there’s plenty of time for their candidate to make a late charge before the Aug. 28 primary, and they see the Sanders visit as being enormously helpful.

“This has always been a late-breaking race,” Geoff Burgan, a spokesman for Gillum’s campaign, told The Hill. “Now, we’re surging; we’re peaking at the right time.”

Burgan then added, “it’s not nothing to get Bernie stumping for you.”

Florida hasn’t been prime Bernie ground in the past, however.

Sanders, seen by many as a potential White House candidate again in 2020, was crushed by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHere's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Clinton praises Dolly Parton's cold shoulder top from vaccination: 'Shall we make this a trend?' Trump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC MORE in the 2016 primary in Florida, losing by 31 points.

The progressive champion has also had a mixed record, at best, in primaries so far this cycle.

Sanders’s preferred candidate for Montana’s at-large House seat, folk singer Rob Quist, fell to Republican Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteOvernight Health Care: CDC calls for schools to reopen with precautions | Cuomo faces rising scrutiny over COVID-19 nursing home deaths | Biden officials move to begin rescinding Medicaid work requirements Montana governor lifts state mask mandate Democrats argue Trump will incite violence again MORE in the special election to replace former Rep. Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Interior finalizes plan to open 80 percent of Alaska petroleum reserve to drilling | Justice Department lawyers acknowledge presidential transition in court filing | Trump admin pushes for permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Trump administration pushes for grazing permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Interior secretary tests positive for COVID-19 after two days of meetings with officials: report MORE (R-Mont.) last year.

Sanders-backed candidates in Michigan and Kansas both lost their primary contests this month.

At the same time, gubernatorial hopefuls Ben Jealous in Maryland and Stacey Abrams in Georgia — both of whom were endorsed by Sanders — won their races.

Florida liberals argue that the state Democratic Party’s tendency to choose moderate candidates is at least part of the reason why Democrats have been shut out of the governor’s mansion for two decades.

They say that a hard-charging progressive, like Gillum, is more likely to excite the base, especially in a non-presidential election year.

“We’ve tried the moderate route over and over and over again for the last 20 years and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere,” said Susan Smith, the president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.

As Sanders took the microphone in Tampa, supporters screamed and chanted his name, while "Respect" from the late Aretha Franklin blared in the background.

“What we have here in Florida is the opportunity not only to transform this state politically by electing a strong progressive, but you have an opportunity to send a message that will be heard all over this country,” Sanders said in Tampa. “Andrew can win this fight. He can win it.”

Gillum is the only black candidate in the five-way Democratic gubernatorial primary. He has campaigned on a promise to reach out to traditionally underrepresented constituencies, particularly minority voters.

But a survey released last month by polling firm Mason-Dixon put Gillum's support among African-American voters at 27 percent — far less than the 70 percent of black voters he says he needs to win the primary.

“In terms of Bernie, it’s an interesting move and, to some extent, it’s the only move [Gillum's campaign has] here,” a longtime Florida Democratic operative who supports Graham said.

“But it’s something that doesn’t make a lot of sense for Florida, because Bernie never caught on in Florida.”

“Florida doesn’t have a huge progressive infrastructure and huge progressive activist tradition,” the person said. “There’s a reason why Bernie did so poorly there.”

Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant and Gillum campaign adviser, insisted that Sanders is a force in Florida. In a recent interview, he pointed to the fact that the self-described democratic socialist raked in more than half a million votes in the state in the 2016 primary as a sign of Sanders’s strength.

In addition to Sanders’s endorsement, Gillum is backed by NextGen America, the PAC supported by Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer, which has pumped $1 million into the Tallahassee mayor’s campaign.

Another billionaire donor, George Soros, has likewise plunged hundreds of thousands of dollars into Gillum’s political committee, Forward Florida.

Just this week, Gillum’s campaign announced a second TV ad — a modest five-figure buy that it touted as the “most progressive ad in Florida history.”

The spot features audio of Gillum speaking in Orlando, while text calling for “healthcare for all,” an assault weapons ban and a $1 billion increase in education funding flashes across the screen.

Whether that progressive message will help turn voters out for Gillum on Aug. 28 remains to be seen. But Burgan, the spokesman for Gillum’s campaign, said that the mayor is optimistic.

“Sanders got 33 percent of the vote in Florida” in 2016, Burgan noted. “If the mayor gets 33 percent of the vote, he’ll be the nominee.”