MIAMI, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- With the Nov. 6 election rapidly approaching, Florida voters have a stark choice for governor with historical ramifications.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the surprise winner of the state's Democratic primary, will seek to become Florida's first black governor and claim an office held by Republicans for most of the past two decades. He's facing Republican Ron DeSantis, a former U.S. representative for Florida's 6th District who's closely aligned with President Donald Trump.
Gillum doubled down on his progressive brand of politics in selecting Orlando businessman and first-time candidate Chris King as his lieutenant governor, while DeSantis selected Florida House Rep. Jeanette Nuñez as his running mate.
The latest polls indicate a tight race between the two vastly different candidates in a state with a voter base focused on education and environmental issues and a young contingent of voters who have mobilized after the mass shooting at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.
Trump's presence also looms large over the election, having beaten Hillary Clinton by 1.2 percent in 2016. As he told voters at a rally in West Virginia last month, "I'm not running, but I'm really running" in the midterm election.
Here's a look at the candidates:
Born in Miami to a mother who worked as a school bus driver and a father who worked construction, the 39-year-old Gillum set himself apart from his primary opponents with a set of progressive policies focused on raising wages for workers and expanding healthcare coverage.
"I think electing him, it's time to make history, it's time for a change, it's time for the ones that say that their vote doesn't count to get out and vote," Harriett McNealy, 58, of Clewiston said.
Gillum has proposed a $1 billion investment in Florida's public schools to raise teachers' starting salaries to $50,000, increasing vocational training and providing more robust early childhood education programs.
"His dream is that a child would be covered with child care from age 1 to 5 and there would be child care all day long so that the mother can work, but the idea is that the child is ready to start school," Eneida Michelson, 90, of Miami Springs said.
He has also pledged to focus on pushing for debt-free college, reforming for-profit charter schools and shifting focus away from high-stress testing.
As part of his education plan, Gillum has proposed legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana and using the revenue to support school programs and raise teacher salaries.
He also proposed a model used in states like California and New York to raise the corporate tax level to 7.75 percent to recoup the $1 billion to fund his educational programs.
"He wants to put a little more tax on corporations to fund teacher pay increases and I'm all for that," said 84-year-old Don Michelson of Miami Springs.
On healthcare, Gillum has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All as a method to lower costs and expand coverage and has pledged to strengthen the Affordable Care Act.
"One of my big wins I think will be bringing the Medicaid expansion to Florida," Bruce Wolfe, 62, of Miami said. "We're leaving money on the table paying federal taxes and not getting any help at all for the 8,000 or so people that could be helped and get healthcare."
Gillum has also proposed a law to protect people with pre-existing conditions from being denied coverage or being charged more due to their condition.
He has focused his environmental policies on the issue of climate change, proposing a plan to transition Florida to clean energy and to implement safeguard regulations at the state level to keep pollutants out of the water. He also vows to combat the red tide and toxic algae bloom affecting Florida's coast and protect the state's access to clean water.
Gillum has touted an F rating from the National Rifle Association and has supported bans on assault weapons, large-capacity magazines and bump stocks.
Additionally, he supports increased barriers to gun ownership, including strengthening and requiring universal background checks for all gun sales, restricting gun access for the mentally ill and known foreign and domestic terrorists and closing various gun purchasing "loopholes."
Gillum has won the endorsement of former President Barack Obama.
DeSantis, a 40-year-old U.S. Navy veteran from Jacksonville, has built a platform on the Republican values of his predecessors, focused on avoiding tax increases, maintaining law and order and preventing illegal immigration.
"We need someone who's going to be be in tune with the Trump platform, because without that coordination things don't get done," Patrick Bockino, 72, of Naples told UPI.
The former congressman has centered his education policy around an 80 percent Classroom Spending Plan, which seeks to ensure 80 percent of public K-12 education spending goes directly to teachers and students in the classroom.
He has called for a full audit of the Florida Department of Education and has proposed legislation to require local school boards to offer an online database where the public can see exactly how the district is spending taxpayer funds.
Additionally, DeSantis has called for a greater focus on career and technical education programs as well as expanding school choice.
"We have to go back to basic education with civics courses, we need good civics courses and we need practical education with the trade schools rather than all college prep," said J.B. Holmes, a 73-year-old retired teacher from Naples.
DeSantis' economic plan places a focus on keeping Florida "one of the lowest tax states in the nation" by vetoing legislation to increase taxes and supporting Amendment 5 to Florida's Constitution, which would require a supermajority of Florida's Legislature to raise any tax or fee.
"The biggest thing that keeps people coming to Florida is the tax rates and the growth," said Dennis Hahm, 73, of Naples.
DeSantis has also placed an emphasis on promoting small business by reducing regulations, working with state legislators, small business leaders and other groups to ensure well-trained candidates enter the workforce and reducing barriers for business loans.
Florida's efforts to combat increased cases of red tide have been at the center of DeSantis' environmental strategy as he has pledged to re-establish a task force of marine and oceanic science to research and report the causes and solutions for the outbreaks.
DeSantis has also said his relationship with Trump will help him gather funding for the state to use toward restoration projects on Florida's beaches and in the Everglades, as well as to ensure bans on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
"What's so important is his relationship with President Trump because we do need money for water," Carol Manning, 75, of Naples said. "We're going to see such a movement to protect our beaches and he's already committed to repairing the dike and I just know he's going to be so important to the state of Florida."
The NRA has given DeSantis an A rating for his congressional voting record on gun rights and he has pledged to "stand up for law-abiding Floridians by defending their Second Amendment rights."
Predicting the race
An average of polls from Sept. 13-30 compiled by Real Clear Politics shows Gillum with a 3.7 point lead over DeSantis, indicating a tight race between the two polarizing candidates.
Data on the primary election shows that about 100,000 fewer Democrats than Republicans voted in the August election, but University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett told UPI Trump will be a major factor in bringing more Democrats to the polls for Gillum in November.
"In a primary, it's basically an in-house battle, Democrats against Democrats. There's a lot of people who consider themselves Democrats but they're not particularly passionate about politics so that's a classic group that doesn't turn out for a primary. They're just not that interested,"Jewett said. "But in a general election, if they feel like they have something that's big or something to vote for, then they're going to turn out."
Trump could also play a factor into winning over U.S. citizens who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, as the president has been criticized for his initial response to the storm and again recently when he challenged reports that as many as 3,000 people had died in the storm.
After Trump's comments in September, a DeSantis campaign spokesman said, in a rare break with Trump, that he doesn't believe "any loss of life has been inflated."
Gillum has been endorsed by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosello and has pledged to push for affordable housing for Puerto Ricans in Florida and to push for Florida to recognize Puerto Rican driver's licenses.
These connections could help to swing Puerto Rican voters, who are often not completely familiar with mainland political parties, to vote for one candidate or another.
"They could be a decisive factor if they vote as a bloc, because the Puerto Rican community is the fastest-growing Hispanic group in Florida and really one of the fastest-growing demographics of any type in Florida, and since Puerto Ricans are citizens as soon as they get to the mainland they can vote," Jewett said.
Young voters are another group that could help turn the tide of the election, as voter registration among people age 18 to 29 in Florida increased by just under 8 percent after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, according to analysis by Target Smart.
Christopher Badillo a 16-year-old student at the School for Advanced Studies Kendall Campus, has been canvassing and giving speeches at his school in support of Gillum's campaign and encouraging his older classmates to vote.
"When I saw someone who would actually stand up to the NRA, not just someone who would stand up to them but has stood up to them and has won, I knew I had to get involved," Christopher said. "For so long, people have told me, 'You are too young, you are too inexperienced to participate, you don't have power yet, wait until you can vote.' And really I understood that I can't do that anymore, I can't just wait for change to happen. I need to make the change because this is my future."
Various national and state organizations have also worked to get young voters to the polls.
Parkland survivor David Hogg launched an initiative to work with 50 mayors throughout the country to register people between ages 18 and 29 to vote. The Florida branch of NextGen America, which has backed Gillum's campaign, has over 125 boots on the ground in 43 college campuses from Pensacola to Miami to register voters.
"We are on track to hit our goal. We have registered since we started 45,000 young people in the state of Florida and our goal is to continue over the next week to push that and collect about 5,000 more," NetGen Florida's state youth director Carly Cass told UPI.
Cass added gun control and gun safety have been the biggest issues among students throughout the state.
"We are dealing with a generation that has seen gun violence spike in their communities, in their classrooms and they want to be safe and they're ready to tell the Legislature and the people in charge that this is what our community needs and what we want. We need reform," she said.