Sanders tests his brand in Florida

Sanders tests his brand in Florida
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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Angst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire 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 GrahamFlorida Democrats' midterm fantasy faceoff: DeSantis vs. Demings Moderate Democrats now in a race against the clock Dear Iowans: Apologies for Sen. Rick Scott's lack of decency 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 ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote 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 GianforteBipartisan governors press Biden administration on Canadian border restrictions Overnight Energy: Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections | Biden to return to pre-Obama water protections | Western governors ask Biden for aid on wildfires Western governors ask Biden for aid on wildfires MORE in the special election to replace former Rep. Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues | Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again | Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill 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.”