The Lieutenants

Illustration by Colin Smith, Daily Sun

Florida’s two gubernatorial candidates couldn’t be much further apart politically, so naturally they took strikingly different approaches to announcing their running mates Thursday. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis chose to round out the ticket with a lieutenant governor candidate who appeals to several key voting blocs in the Republican race. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum eschewed that common strategy and doubled-down on ideology to help fire up the Democratic base. We’ll find out Nov. 6 which chose the better path. DeSantis picked Rep. Jeanette Nunez of Miami, the first Cuban-American woman on the ballot for the office.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum tapped Orlando businessman and former progressive rival Chris King.

Nunez and King have the chance to send powerful messages about two very different candidates.

And more than ballot balancers, some lieutenant governors have acted as key surrogates and legislative guides.

What’s the job?

Florida’s lieutenant governor doesn’t have a prescribed role outside of succession.

If the governor resigns or dies, the lieutenant governor becomes governor, such as in 1998 when Lt. Gov. Kenneth “Buddy” MacKay Jr. of Ocala took over after Gov. Lawton Chiles died of a heart attack three weeks before the end of his term.

Should Gov. Rick Scott win his battle to take Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat, he may need to resign before his term is over in order to be sworn in as senator.

If that happens, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera will fill the post until Scott’s successor is sworn in. Scott has said that on his final day he plans to appoint three new justices retiring from the Florida Supreme Court. If Scott were to resign, it could be Lopez-Cantera who makes the appointments.

The role of lieutenant governor has sometimes been downplayed. Scott even went solo for almost a year before appointing a replacement for his first lieutenant governor.

Like the vice president, the duties of the office can depend on who occupies the post.

“It’s a position that could be developed by someone with real political sense, whoever they are or whatever side of the aisle they are,” said Bruce Anderson, associate professor of political science at Florida Southern College.

It also depends on who’s governor, said Susan MacManus, a government and international affairs professor at the University of South Florida.

If the next lieutenant governor does play a big role, it won’t be the first time.

Lt. Gov. Ray Osborne, the first to hold the title after the office was re-established in 1968, helped his Republican governor navigate a Democratic Legislature.

Governors can also put their lieutenant governors in charge of important commissions or boards such as when Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings helped Jeb Bush with issues from education to disaster relief.

Voter appeal

Lieutenant governor candidates can also influence elections by balancing the ticket.

Gillum and DeSantis are perceived as far left and far right candidates, Anderson said.

“Now that we’re in the general election cycle, this is a different kind of chemistry right here (than the primary), because this is when the center voters really make a difference,” he said. “You’re not appealing to your party’s base anymore: You’re appealing to the middle of the road too.”

Nunez, he said, brings DeSantis more toward the center. She also brings a female face of color to the ticket, appealing to two crucial voting blocs.

She also packs political experience. Since 2010, Nunez, 46, has served as a state representative, and she’s been House speaker pro tempore since 2016.

“She definitely understands Tallahassee’s workings,”said Jerry Prince, president of The Villages Republican Club. “And being from South Florida doesn’t hurt either” since DeSantis is from North Florida.

Doubling Down

Gillum went a more unusual route.

In the lead-up to the selection, Anderson said Gillum’s former opponent Gwen Graham — who garnered 31 percent of Democratic votes in the primary compared with Gillum’s 34 percent — would have been  a good choice because “she would even things out ideologically and bring donors and voters to the ticket.”

Gillum, however, chose to solidify the progressive agenda with King, 39.

“They give a unified message,”

MacManus said. “It’s obvious they’re counting on the younger and diverse demographic to take them to victory.”

Jeff Yonce, president of The Villages Democratic Club, said King the middle for both parties has been blurred.

“I think what we’re seeing for the Democratic Party is progressives coming out of the woodwork,” he said. “I think with the Republican Party, you either have to be a Trumpite or you’re not going to win. I think it’s a different position than either party has been in before, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Leah Schwarting is an associate managing editor with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or leah.schwarting@thevillagesmedia.com.