Washington (CNN) Fresh off his victory in the Florida Republican gubernatorial primary, Rep. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that voters would "monkey this up" if they elected his African-American Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, to be governor, immediately drawing accusations of racism.
The remark provides a controversial beginning to what will be a closely watched general election campaign for the Florida governorship, which pits DeSantis, who has closely aligned himself with President Donald Trump, against Gillum, a progressive backed by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Calling Gillum "an articulate spokesman" for the far left, DeSantis said during an interview on Fox News when asked about his opponent, "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."
Gillum would become the state's first black governor if he were to win in November.
"Well, I'll try to be articulate, Chris," Gillum told Chris Cuomo on CNN's "Cuomo Prime Time," "and simply say that that kind of vitriol -- and he's apparently given up the whistle, they've gone to the bullhorn with these kinds of tactics -- but they're not going to work."
Gillum earlier had told Fox News' Shepard Smith, "It's very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump."
"Was that racist or a figment of speech?" Smith asked, referring to DeSantis' comment.
Gillum didn't answer the specific question, instead responding, "I'm not going to get down in the gutter with DeSantis and Trump. There's enough of that going on."
But Democratic groups quickly accused DeSantis of using racist dog whistles, which DeSantis' campaign denied.
"It's disgusting that Ron DeSantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement.
"On the first day of the general election, Ron DeSantis showed Floridians who he really is," Democratic Governors Association Deputy Communications Director David Turner said. "Resorting to dog whistle politics within hours of winning the GOP nomination shows a desperate candidate who will stoop to new lows in order to court and give voice to fringe elements of society. Floridians want a leader who will bring them together; Ron DeSantis has shown that he would only divide Florida."
A spokeswoman for Fox News reached out to CNN early Wednesday afternoon to distance the network from DeSantis' remark, pointing to a statement made by anchor Sandra Smith on air in which she said, "We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he has since clarified his statement."
Stephen Lawson, the communications director for the DeSantis campaign, said he was referring to Gillum's policies in making the remark.
"Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd," Lawson said. "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."
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Fox News anchor Sandra Smith read a statement reacting to DeSantis' remark on air.