A day after clinching the Republican nomination in the race for governor in Florida, Rep. Ron DeSantis was under fire for saying during a Fox News interview that voters shouldn't "monkey this up" by electing his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, the first African-American to win a major party nomination for the state’s top office.
DeSantis, who won Tuesday’s primary by nearly 20 percentage points, made the comment after first describing Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor, as an "articulate spokesman for those far left views" and a "charismatic candidate."
"We've got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction. Let's build off the success we've had on Governor Scott," DeSantis said. "The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”
As the comment ricocheted across social media- with members of Congress along with the organization CAIR and even FOX News denouncing them - the chairwoman of Florida's Democratic Party, Terrie Rizzo, was among those decrying it as racist.
"It's disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles," Rizzo said on Twitter.
DeSantis' campaign rejected that characterization.
"Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses," spokesman Stephen Lawson said. "To characterize it as anything else is absurd. Florida’s economy has been on the move for the last eight years and the last thing we need is a far-left Democrat trying to stop our success."
"As we say in Tallahassee, bless his heart," a Gillum representative told NBC News in a response.
In an appearance on MSNBC's Meet the Press, Gillum told host Chuck Todd that the voters of Florida are "better than this."
"I believe Congressman can be better than this," Gillum said. "I regret that his mentor in politics is Donald Trump. But I do believe the voters of the state of Florida are going to reject the politics of division."
Gillum, who shocked many by winning the party’s nomination in a field of five candidates that included former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham despite spending the least out of the group, has embraced many of the same policies and ideology as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who ran for president in 2016.
Sanders had endorsed the 39-year-old and campaigned with Gillum in Florida during the primary season.
Gillum and DeSantis are competing for the office held by Rick Scott, who can't run for re-election because of term limits and is instead challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. After an easy win in Tuesday's GOP primary, Scott now joins a bitter — and expensive — showdown with Nelson that could play a decisive role in determining whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate.
The governor's race, in a state sure to be a battleground in the 2020 presidential election, will essentially be a referendum on Trump.
DeSantis based nearly his entire campaign around the president, and acknowledged after the victory that Trump's endorsement was the key.
"With one tweet, that kind of put me on the map," DeSantis said.
Trump praised DeSantis Wednesday and said he had not heard the candidate's "monkey" comment.
DeSantis entered the race a month after Trump's December tweet that he would make "a GREAT governor." Later Trump held a rally for him in Tampa. Suddenly, he was considered the favorite over Putnam, who seemingly spent his entire adult life building toward the run for governor.
Gillum was a 23-year-old Florida A&M student when he became the youngest person elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003. He was elected mayor in 2014.
Gillum is a gifted public speaker and did well in debates, often receiving the most applause, but the FBI is investigating Tallahassee city hall for corruption. Gillum has said he's not a target.
The differences between the candidates are pronounced.
DeSantis is pro-gun, and anti-tax; Gillum boasts about beating the National Rifle Association in a lawsuit and is calling for an increase in corporate taxes.
While he didn't make race an issue, Gillum said during a recent interview that it would be "big" to be Florida's first black governor.
"I have been really slow to try to think on it because it's too big," he said. "There will absolutely be a part of this that I can't even put words to around what it might mean for my children and other people's kids. Especially growing up for them in the age of Donald Trump."