A Donald Trump-backed Republican candidate has sparked controversy after urging Florida not to “monkey this up” by electing his African-American opponent as governor of Florida.
Ron DeSantis – a staunch supporter of the American president – came under fire for his remarks on Fox News for their racial undertones after winning his party’s nomination on Tuesday.
Referring to his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum, he told the channel: “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases.”
Mr DeSantis also called the Tallahasee mayor, who surprisingly won the Democratic primary for Florida governor, an “articulate” spokesman for “far-left views”.
Mr Gillum, who hopes to motivate younger progressives and minority voters who avoid non-presidential elections, would become the first black governor in the country’s biggest swing state.
He told CNN: “I actually believe that Florida and its rich diversity are going to be looking for a governor who’s going to bring us together, not divide us. Not misogynist, not racist, not bigots, they’re going to be looking for a governor who is going to appeal to our higher aspirations as a state.
“DeSantis can do the bidding of big business and big lobbyists and Donald Trump and his divisive rhetoric.”
Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo hit out at Mr DeSantis on Twitter.
“It’s disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles,” she wrote.
However, the Republican’s spokesman, Stephen Lawson, defended the remark, saying Mr DeSantis was referring to his opponent’s political positions and not his race.
“Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace,” Mr Lawson said in a statement. “To characterise it as anything else is absurd.”
But criticism aimed at Mr DeSantis continued, with Democratic senator Bill Nelson saying the comments were “unacceptable in civilised discourse”.
Following the television interview, Fox News host Sandra Smith said the channel did not “condone this language”.
The race for governor will be closely watched as an indicator ahead of 2020, when Mr Trump could be seeking re-election against a liberal Democratic candidate.
The president said he had not yet heard Mr DeSantis’s remarks but did congratulate the Republican candidate’s party nomination victory on Twitter.
He tweeted: “Such a fantastic win for Ron DeSantis and the people of the Great State of Florida. Ron will be a fantastic Governor. On to November!”