Trump faces litmus test in Florida

Trump faces litmus test in Florida
© Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. — President TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE is set to face a crucial test of his political influence in Florida, where several key races up and down the ballot are poised to serve as early referenda on the president’s political brand in the country’s largest — and most volatile — swing state.

The state is home to several key races that could be critical to Democrats seeking a blue wave, and Trump has emerged as a central focus of many of them. The real estate mogul won the state in 2016 by little more than 100,000 votes — a razor-thin margin for a state where nearly 10 million voters cast their ballots.


In no race is Trump’s presence felt more than in the battle for the Florida governor’s mansion, which has emerged as a proxy fight of sorts between Trump’s brand of populism and the progressive populism that has emerged as an influential force in Democratic politics in recent years.

Democrat Andrew Gillum, the 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, is vying to become Florida’s first African-American governor — and the first Democrat to occupy the governor’s mansion in two decades.

He’s run on an unabashedly progressive message, positioning himself in stark contrast to Trump.

Meanwhile, Republican Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida governor announces sheriff's suspension over Parkland shooting DeSantis asks entire South Florida water management board to resign Rick Scott threw party at Florida governor’s mansion after DeSantis and family had moved in: report MORE, a former congressman who gained prominence moonlighting as a frequent guest on Fox News, has aligned himself closely with the president and has focused no small part of his campaign on a promise to work hand-in-hand with the Trump administration.

The matchup has emerged as the highest-profile among Florida’s competitive races, seen as one of the clearest bellwethers for Trump’s support among the swing voters that could play a pivotal role in deciding whether he’ll spend another four years in the White House in 2020.

Gillum, who scored a come-from-behind primary win over three more-moderate Democrats in August, has focused his campaign on calls to expand Medicaid, raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 and restore voting rights to felons.

He’s also called for Trump’s impeachment, while casting DeSantis as a foot soldier of the president.

“Donald Trump is weak,” Gillum said during a televised debate against DeSantis on Sunday. “And he performs as all weak people do: They become bullies, and Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte. He’s trying out to be the Trump apprentice at every turn.”

In the race for the Senate in Florida, however, Trump isn’t as clear a presence — although his presidency still looms large.

Republican Rick Scott, the two-term Florida governor seeking to oust Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonFlorida lawmaker diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Rick Scott threw party at Florida governor’s mansion after DeSantis and family had moved in: report Restoration of voting rights by felons marks shift in Florida MORE (D-Fla.) in November, was among the first Republican elected officials to praise Trump’s presidential bid in 2016.

But the governor has kept the president at arm’s length through much of his Senate bid, faced with the stark political reality that Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration and his administration’s widely panned response to hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico last year could isolate the Hispanic voters that he has sought to court.

Nelson has also failed to mention Trump as frequently as Gillum has. The president’s name has made infrequent appearances in the senator’s campaign ads. Likewise, in a contentious debate earlier this month, Nelson and Scott spoke in vague terms about Trump’s policies, rather than about the man himself.

Nelson, a three-term incumbent, is considered among the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this year. His bid against Scott pits him against a Republican who is not only willing to pump millions of dollars of his vast personal fortune into his own campaign, but also has the ability to reach voters with the megaphone of the governor’s mansion.

The Democrats’ focus on Trump’s agenda was on full display on Tuesday as the Florida state party held a “winning-ticket” rally at a downtown Orlando saloon. There former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBrown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration 5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony Gillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert MORE, stumping for Nelson and other candidates down the ballot, cast the current electoral fight as a “battle for the soul of America.”

“America already knows who Donald Trump is,” the former vice president said solemnly. “The question is, who are we?”

“Think of what [Trump] has said. Think of the things he does. Think of the abuse of power,” he added. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Republican Congress is also choosing this president over the country.”

Democrats are seeking to capitalize on a Democratic base incensed by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. They have held the enthusiasm advantage for much of the past two years, driving hopes among partisans that they will be able to sweep the congressional map in November and retake control of the House, at least.

Those hopes extend to Florida, where Republicans are fending off Democratic challenges in several districts.

Two of the most competitive House races in the state this year are being fought in South Florida, an immensely diverse melting pot, where Trump’s rhetoric on race and immigration could prove politically toxic for Republicans.

Florida’s 26th District, split between Miami-Dade County and Monroe County in the southern tip of the peninsula, presents such a challenge for the GOP. Incumbent Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloEx-GOP Rep. Ryan Costello joins group pushing carbon tax Hispanic Caucus boasts record membership in new Congress Chuck Todd says his show is 'not going to give time to climate deniers' MORE has been among the few Republicans to publicly break with Trump, particularly when it comes to immigration.

He’s facing a challenge from Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Florida International University official who emigrated from Ecuador as a teenager. That race, according to the Cook Political Report, is a “toss-up.”

And in Florida’s 27th District, which encompasses Miami Beach, as well as most of Downtown Miami and its southern suburbs, Republican Maria Elvira Salazar and Democrat Donna Shalala are locked in a closer-than-expected battle to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenYoder, Messer land on K Street Ex-GOP lawmaker from Washington joins lobbying firm Black Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority MORE (R).

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert Former PepsiCo CEO being considered for World Bank chief post: report Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing MORE won the district by nearly 20 points in 2016, and the area, with its urban and suburban landscapes, leans Democratic. But Salazar, a former Spanish-language broadcast journalist, has proven to be a tough opponent for Shalala, and Republicans are ramping up spending in the race in an eleventh-hour bid to hold on to the district.

Those races, along with the contests to replace retiring Rep. Dennis RossDennis Alan RossIncoming GOP lawmaker says he may have violated campaign finance law Florida New Members 2019 Ross Spano wins race to replace Dennis Ross in Florida House seat MORE (R) in Florida’s 15th District and against Rep. Vern BuchananVernon Gale BuchananMORE (R) in the 16th District, could be pivotal in deciding who will hold the Speaker’s gavel next year.

The party needs to gain at least 23 seats in the chamber to recapture a majority. Democrats face a far more difficult path to a Senate majority. They’re defending more than two dozen seats this year, including 10 in states won by Trump in 2016. Nelson’s seat is among them.

The impact that a blue wave on Election Day could have on Trump’s political brand is not lost on Republicans. Multiple GOP operatives expressed confidence in the president’s ability to bring out the conservative base in November.

But some acknowledged that Trump’s influence is also on the line, as the party has increasingly aligned itself with the president.

“If your party takes a hit, you take a hit too,” one said.