A swing state no more? GOP confidence grows in Florida

THE VILLAGES, Fla. (AP) — Democrats are increasingly concerned that Florida, once the nation’s first swing state, will eclipse this fall and beyond as emboldened Republicans capitalize on divisive cultural issues and demographic shifts in crucial contests for Governor and US Senate.

The anxiety was evident last week during a parade of Democrat golf carts featuring Senate candidate Val Demings in The Villages, a retirement community just north of the Interstate 4 corridor. Once a politically mixed part of the state where elections were often decided, some Democrats now say they feel increasingly isolated .

“I’m terrified,” said Sue Sullivan, 77, lamenting the state’s rightward shift. “There are very few Democrats here.”

In an interview, Demings, congressman and former Orlando police chief, challenges Republican Senator Marco Rubioacknowledged that her party’s midterm message did not resonate as she had hoped.

“We need to do a better job of telling our stories and clearly demonstrating who really is on the side of people who have to go to work every day,” she said.

The frustration is the culmination of nearly a decade of Republican forays into Florida, where candidates have refined deeply conservative social and economic messages to build a kind of coalition that includes rural voters and Latinos, especially Cubans. Americans. that of Donald Trump winning here in 2016 marked the evolution after the state backed Barack Obama twice. And while he lost the White House in 2020, Trump won Florida by more than 3 percentage points, a remarkable margin in a state where elections were routinely decided by less than a percentage point.

President Joe Biden will visit the state on November 1, exactly one week before Election Day, to rally the Democrats. Demings said she had two conversations with the president about campaigning together, but could not confirm any joint appearances. And Charlie Christthe Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said he would attend a private fundraiser with Biden on the day of the rally, but was unsure if they would appear together in public.

“If we could get some public air time, that would be a wonderful thing that I would welcome,” Crist said in an interview.

Still, the GOP is optimistic it can continue to score victories, even in longtime Democratic strongholds. Some Republicans are optimistic the party could carry Miami-Dade County, a once unthinkable prospect that would virtually eliminate Democrats’ path to victory in statewide contests, including presidential elections. .

And in Lee County in southwest Florida, a major Republican stronghold, even a devastating hurricane doesn’t seem to have shaken GOP momentum. In fact, Republicans and Democrats privately agree that Hurricane Ian, which claimed more than 100 lives, may have helped Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. broaden its appeal. On Monday, he will participate in a debate against Crist in which he will likely highlight his handling of the state during a burning crisis.

But the 44-year-old Republican governor spent much of his first term focusing on sensitive social issues. He signed new laws banning abortion at 15 weeks gestation without exception for rape or incest, while blocking critical race theory and LGBTQ issues in many Florida schools. He also stripped millions of dollars from a major league baseball team that spoke out against gun violence and led efforts to eliminate Disney’s special tax status. for condemning his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

On the eve of the hurricane, DeSantis shipped dozens of Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard to draw attention to illegal immigration at the US-Mexico border.

Crist, a former congressman and former governor himself, acknowledged that some voters “appreciated” DeSantis’ focus on cultural issues, “but most Floridians are good, decent people.” He noted that at least one Hispanic radio host has compared DeSantis to former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

“Usually, when you leave a primary, people will pass in the middle. He clearly doesn’t do that, to say the least,” Crist said of his Republican rival.

But much to the horror of many Democrats, DeSantis could become the first Floridian to win a gubernatorial race by more than one point since 2006. That kind of display could lift Rubio in the U.S. Senate election while helping the GOP to win up to 20 of the state’s 28 US House seats.

If DeSantis won big as expected, his allies believe he would have the political capital to launch a successful presidential campaign in 2024 — whether Trump runs or not.

“It’s shocking and frightening,” State Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz said of DeSantis’ repeated willingness to use the power of his office to attack political rivals, whom he s whether individual opponents or iconic corporations like Disney.

DeSantis, who declined an interview request, found success by going against conventional wisdom before.

He beat Democrat Andrew Gillum four years ago by 32,436 votes out of more than 8.2 million votes, a margin so narrow it required a recount.

But in the four years since, Republicans have erased a voter registration advantage Florida Democrats have held for decades. By the time registrations closed for the 2018 election, Democrats had a 263,269-vote advantage. As of Sept. 30, Republicans had a lead of 292,533 voters — a change from nearly 556,000 registered voters during DeSantis’ first term.

“We are no longer a swing state. We are wiping out the Democrats,” said Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters, a top DeSantis ally.

And while he says his party has focused on traditional kitchen table issues, such as gas prices and inflation, Gruters has honed in on cultural battles — particularly the Florida GOP opposition to sex education and LGBTQ issues in elementary schools — which defined DeSantis’ tenure.

“I don’t want anyone else teaching my kids about birds and bees and gender fluidity issues,” Gruters said.

Strategists from both parties believe Florida’s political change is due to multiple factors, but it’s generally accepted that Republicans have benefited from an influx of new voters since DeSantis became the leader of the GOP’s resistance to the public health measures related to the pandemic.

On average every day over the year between 2020 and 2021, 667 more people moved into the state than left, according to US Census estimates.

Part of the Republican change can also be attributed to people living in rural North Florida, remnants of the Deep South, changing their registration to reflect their voting habits. Many people registered as Democrats because generations before them did, but so-called Dixiecrats have always voted solidly Republican.

But that alone doesn’t explain the Democrats’ challenge this fall.

Democrats are particularly concerned about the trend in Miami-Dade County, home to 1.5 million voting-age Hispanics and a 20-year Democratic stronghold, where the GOP made significant gains in the last election. presidential. In two weeks, the area could turn red.

“We’ve seen so many Hispanics flock to the Republican Party here in Miami-Dade County,” Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Núñez said at an event with other party leaders last week. . “I’m going to make a prediction right now: We’re going to win Miami-Dade County on November 8.”

Meanwhile, in Southwest Florida, thousands of Republican voters are literally picking up pieces of their shattered homes and vehicles in the wake of Hurricane Ian, which killed more than 100 people and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

Mangled boats and huge chunks of concrete docks still litter the shoreline of Fort Myers, the county seat of Lee County, one of the most Republican counties in the country. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and several schools remain closed nearly a month after the Category 4 hurricane made landfall.

Still, Matt Caldwell, the county’s real estate appraiser and state GOP member, was confident about his party’s political prospects.

“Most people, 90% of the people who live in the county are more or less back to life at this point,” he said as he toured a Fort Myers marina covered in twisted metal and crumpled yachts.

Caldwell praised the Republican governor for his regular presence during cleanup efforts, suggesting voters from all political backgrounds will reward him on Election Day.

DeSantis himself was optimistic as he delivered an update on the nearby storm in Punta Gorda this weekend. The governor referenced the upcoming election, but focused his remarks on relief efforts.

“We’ve had success with bridges and all of that other stuff partly because we have the community coming together,” DeSantis said. “Everyone rows in the same direction. It makes a difference.

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Gomez Licon reported from Miami and Farrington reported from Tallahassee.

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