Win or lose, the race was set to end where it all began.
On the same Florida college campus where Andrew Gillum’s political career began as a student body president 17 years ago, the popular Tallahassee mayor and improbable candidate for governor conceded defeat to Republican Ron DeSantis late on Tuesday night.
“We may not have all shown up in the way that we thought and hoped that we would,” Gillum told a dejected crowd of supporters, “but I still believe in and trust the voters.”
Few expected Gillum to win the primary to become the Democratic candidate in August. As the nominee, he faced a tough climb in a state that Donald Trump carried comfortably in 2016, but he consistently polled ahead of DeSantis for much of the lead-up to the election.
That math failed to play out, however, and Gillum fell into an early deficit once counting began. As the night carried on it became increasingly unlikely that late returns in Broward County, often a source of election-night drama in Florida, could make up the difference.
Gracious in defeat, Gillum was also defiant at his alma mater, the historically black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
“Let’s make sure that people know we plan to have a seat at this thing and that we will not be ignored, will not be pushed aside and we will not be pushed into the shadows anymore. That we’re here, and we’re here to stay,” Gillum said of his failed bid to become just the third black American governor since Reconstruction and the first in the south.
It was an emotional night for those assembled. Many hugged, cried and gently booed when Gillum told them he had called DeSantis to offer his congratulations.
“I just wonder if we’re really a country of inclusion,” said Cecka Rose Green, as she wiped away tears. “If we’re really a country that says that no matter from where you come, what your circumstance is, if you work hard that you can achieve the American dream.”
She continued: “It was a hard-fought campaign. We fought a lot of negative ads. There were a lot of racial attacks. And growing up black in America is hard enough as it is. It’s kind of disheartening.”
The mood at the campaign headquarters slowly plunged when the early results, which looked good for Gillum, gave way to a stubborn deficit of about a single percentage point that carried on as the number of precincts left to report crawled towards zero.
The mostly college student crowd tried to stay positive, cheering for Democratic victories on the jumbo TV screens and dancing to the DJ.
Eventually, the would-be celebration, waterlogged by soaking evening thunderstorms, started to flag. “We can still pull this off, let’s get some energy going,” begged the last speaker from the podium, before Gillum took the stage about an hour later.
Somewhat muddled in the historic nature of Gillum’s run, its Cinderella-story unlikelihood, and the nastiness of his opponent’s attacks is that he ran and nearly won a US governorship on an aggressively progressive platform that included Medicare for all, strong environmental protections, and bold criminal justice reforms.
One of the few bright spots in Gillum’s speech was the appreciation for Florida voters who approved Amendment 4, a ballot measure which restores the vote to ex-felons who had previously been barred under state law.
Gillum also used his concession to reflect on his campaign slogan, “Bring it Home” which, far from the usual retail politics electioneering, was a deep part of his family history, borrowed from his maternal grandmother.
Last week he told Rolling Stone it was always said as “a directive to achieve whatever he set his mind to, then bring that success home to his family and community”.
Choking back tears, and with his wife R Jai grabbing his shoulder in support as the crowd rose in cheers, Gillum apologized that he wasn’t able to “bring it home”, but composed himself and said: “I’m not going anywhere. We’re going to fight. And we’re gonna keep fighting. We’re going to keep working. We’re going to keep believing, and ultimately I believe we will be victorious.”