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DeSantis: 'Monkey' comment has 'zero to do with race'

DeSantis: 'Monkey' comment has 'zero to do with race'
© Greg Nash

Florida gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGillum attorney: A lawsuit is on the table Florida judge: ‘Ramp down the rhetoric’ in recount Lieberman: Trump should ‘stand back’ from the Florida recount MORE (R-Fla.) on Wednesday defended his comments telling Florida voters not to "monkey this up" by voting for his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum, after receiving sharp blowback from critics who called the remarks racist.

“It has zero to do with race, Sean, it has everything to do with whether we want Florida to continue to go in a good direction building off the success, or do we want to turn to left-wing socialist policies which will absolutely devastate our state,” he said on Fox News’s “Hannity” Wednesday night.

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“So this is not about race, this is about ideas and principles, and I’m not going to let the Democrats and Andrew Gillum try to obscure a debate about whether his tax increases, his single-payer health-care plan, his desire to abolish [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], whether that is something that’s acceptable to Florida. I don’t think it is, and I don’t care what color you are,” he added. 

DeSantis made the comments earlier on Wednesday about his opponent, who would be the first black governor of Florida, if elected. 

He faced a wave of criticism following the remarks.

"It's disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and Fox News's Sandra Smith also condemned DeSantis's comments.

“It’s how white folks talk about black men who are successful,” Steele said on MSNBC's "Meet the Press."

Smith, speaking on behalf of the network on Wednesday, said, "We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he has since clarified his statement."

Gillum, responding on Thursday, said DeSantis's comments could hurt his campaign in the midterm election.

“He doesn’t need to apologize to me, he needs to apologize to Florida voters, because if he thinks that those kind of shenanigans are going to be persuasive enough in this midterm election to turn their way, I think he’s badly mistaken,” Gillum said Thursday.

Gillum and DeSantis are running a tight race for the Florida governorship. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, rates the race a “toss-up.”