Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis, fresh off a Trump-endorsed victory in the Florida gubernatorial primary, was under fire Wednesday for using a “racist dog whistle,” in a television interview about his opponent.
The state is going in a good direction, but voters would “monkey this up” if they elected Andrew D. Gillum, a Democrat who stands to be the state’s first African American governor, DeSantis said in a morning Fox News appearance.
The statement came just hours after DeSantis and Gillum won their respective primaries, setting up a gubernatorial race that has been described as a proxy for the populist versus progressive tug-of-war over the soul of the American electorate.
DeSantis’ comment sparked an immediate outcry and an apology from the Fox News host. DeSantis’ campaign, meanwhile, said his words had been taken out of context and called the reaction “absurd.”
Detractors included Democratic lawmakers who have been DeSantis’ colleagues in the House.
“Mr. DeSantis’ chosen word weaves its way through centuries of slavery & segregation, dehumanization & discrimination,” Florida Rep. Val Demings said on Twitter. “How could he not know better?”
It’s impossible to know what’s in someone’s heart, but Mr. DeSantis’ chosen word weaves its way through centuries of slavery & segregation, dehumanization & discrimination. How could he not know better? He is #NotReady.https://t.co/A6S6jAoSTx
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, called the statement, “dogwhistle racism,” in a tweet.
To say that @AndrewGillum – Florida’s first #AfricanAmerican nominee for governor – got where he did bc he “performed” better and that electing him would “monkey this up” is dogwhistle racism and defines the @GOP in the age of @realDonaldTrump – #Florida must & will reject this!!
DeSantis, the Republican candidate, sailed to victory with Fox News interviews, a late endorsement from President Trump, and an unabashed embrace of the language and imagery of Trump’s White House. He famously dressed his infant son in a Make America Great Again onesie and built a wall out of blocks with his daughter in campaign commercials.
The president again praised DeSantis, even after being made aware of the congressman’s remark.
“I know Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis is extraordinary. Harvard. Yale. Brilliant. He ran an incredible campaign. Really beat a lot of people he wasn’t supposed to beat. He’s an extreme talent. And he will make a fantastic governor of Florida,” Trump said.
Gillum, the charismatic former Tallahassee mayor, overthrew a crowded Democratic ticket with a progressive platform and the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Desantis made the comment during a morning interview that touched upon Gillum’s upset victory on the Democratic ticket.
“He is an articulate spokesman for those far-left views. And he’s a charismatic candidate,” DeSantis said. “I watched those Democratic debates. None of that is my cup of tea but he performed better than the other people there so 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 with Gov. [Rick] Scott. 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. That’s not going to work. That’s not going to be good for Florida.”
Stephen Lawson, communications director for the DeSantis campaign, told the Miami Herald that it was “absurd” to describe the comments as racist.
“Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses,” he 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.”
A Fox News host later said the station does not condone DeSantis’ choice of words.
“During the interview, he made what some are calling an inappropriate comment about his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum,” host Sandra Smith said after DeSantis had left the show. “We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he has since clarified his statement.”
She added that Gillum would appear on the network that afternoon.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.