There is some shake up in GOP politics in Florida that created some controversy within the ranks, but before getting to that, it should be noted that Republican incumbent Francis Rooney has decided not to run for reelection in 2020. The Naples native represents the southwest portion of the state and ran into some intra-party headwinds when he announced that he would not rule out a vote to impeach President Trump. Regardless of his reasons, which he tried to later nuance, there is no shortage of Republicans itching to replace him.
There is also some rumors circulating that current Senator Marco Rubio may be considered to become Trump’s Secretary of State should Mike Pompeo resign to run for the Senate seat in Kansas. Rubio denied the rumors and said he intends to stand by his campaign pledge to complete his Senate term before considering another office or job.
Now to some of that intra-party controversy. At an appearance by Trump at a retirement community in Florida, the entire GOP braintrust in the state was present and called out by name by the President. One person notably absent was GOP state party chief Joe Gruter. He explained his absence due to the fact he had a prior commitment with state lawmakers to tour prisons. However, there appears to be some animus between Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and Gruter. DeSantis endorsed a party initiative to cut the pay of Gruter in half in order to better pay the executive director of the party in the state, Peter O’Rourke.
O’Rourke was Trump’s former acting secretary of Veterans Affairs. Some saw this move by DeSantis as a means to remove Gruter from the party leadership. This move was coupled by another by DeSantis. Former party executive director Jennifer Locetta was considered an ally of a veteran party operative, Susie Wiles, who helped get DeSantis elected. It is believed that Wiles was edged out of the DeSantis orbit by chief of staff Shane Strum to install more loyal advocates for DeSantis. Wiles also co-chaired Trump’s election campaign in Florida and was expected to play a major role come 2020. At the urging of DeSantis, the state GOP essentially also elbowed her out of that role.
Republican Senator and former Governor Rick Scott did not use the Florida state apparatus for fundraising when he won since he had accumulated wealth from his private job. However, DeSantis has changed that practice as Governor and will now use the state party for fundraising for all campaigns in the state from President on down. Thus, these moves are designed as a power-concentrating effort by DeSantis as he continues to surround himself with loyalists.
As an aside, it should be noted that Wiles had resigned from her high-powered lobbying firm, Ballard Partners, anticipating her now quashed role in the Trump reelection effort. That firm recently received a subpoena from SDNY investigating two Florida businessmen and their ties to Guiliani. The two businessmen of Ukrainian descent are charged with funneling foreign money into several US election campaigns. Ballard Partners was founded by Brian Ballard who is a well-known confidante of President Trump.
It is obvious that Trump has an affinity for Florida. He announced his reelection bid in 2017- the earliest for any incumbent- in Florida. Florida has afforded him some of his most raucous rallies. Even such a powerhouse Democratic like Priorities USA conducted a poll and found that Trump’s economic message registers favorably in the state. He has visited the state more than any other President in the past.
For their part, Democrats are not conceding the state believing they were caught flat-footed in 2016. They do not want to make the same mistake this time around. And although 2018 was generally a bad year for Republicans nationally, the GOP held onto the Governor’s office in Florida and flipped a Senate seat. Already, alleged front-runner Joe Biden has visited the state many times, although it was usually with his hand out in front of deep-pocketed donors.
Democrats realize that Trump’s trip back to the White House becomes almost impossible without Florida’s 29 electoral votes. They believe a victory here will validate their message of diversity. Former Tallahassee mayor, losing gubernatorial candidate, and latest greatest thing to happen to Florida, Andrew Gillum, said this: “I don’t think we’re red. I don’t think we’re purple. I think we’re simply disorganized,” when it comes to the Democrats in the Sunshine State.
Noting the case of Ohio, some Democrat strategists now consider Ohio more red than Texas. They note that since 2014 the GOP has maintained a strong presence in Ohio and maintained a staff of 3,000 local organizers (called “fellows”) who help mobilize turnout. One progressive group, For Our Future, has been doing the same in Florida since 2016.
Even still, the Democrats are not without some disunity. Recently, the state Democrat Party decide to cut ties with Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a key adviser to golden boy, Andrew Gillum. Tasked with increasing Democratic voter registration before 2020, she was paid $80,000. Even more telling are the actions of John Morgan. He is often described as a Democrat political “rainmaker” in Florida politics. However, a serious rift has opened between him and Andrew Gillum. Morgan had donated $250,000 to Gillum’s election campaign and later asked for the money back since Gillum sat on over $3 million in unused donations. Gillum allegedly told Morgan “no.” This is foretelling because it becomes apparent that Gillum may use these funds possibly for another run for Governor.
In remarks at the Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee, Morgan threatened to sue Gillum should he run for Governor again. Morgan, well-known for his late night “For the People” advertisements, said he will not be deterred. Recently, the state legislature restored voting rights to convicted felons provided they paid restitution to victims ordered by courts and/or fines. Morgan suggested that Gillum use this $3 million nest egg to do just that. Gillum responded he is using the money to help register Democrat voters before the 2020 elections in an effort to stave off a Trump victory.
Morgan’s suggestion that Gillum pay the fines and restitution, however, would open up his apparatus to expensive federal taxes since it is not an allowable expense. Regardless, a high-powered broker in Democratic circles is at odds with a key figure in those circles- Andrew Gillum.
There is one consistency in Florida politics that cannot be overlooked. Florida voter registration statistics show a fairly stable and even-handed spread over the past three years. The only difference is that in swing counties the number of independent or unaffiliated voters has dropped smidgens in recent years. In some of these counties, Republicans hold the advantage. While polarization and “either/or” conversations dominate the rhetoric, these registration trends remain intact.
Thus it comes down to the message of both parties as they battle for Florida in 2020. One can expect many Trump visits to Florida given his obvious love of the state. Will his affinity for the state and the state of the economy in 2020 be enough to take their 29 electoral votes? Or will the diversity message of the Democrats be the winning message? As presidential wannabe Pete Buttigieg said: he found Florida “…one of the most remarkably diverse places in the country.”
Next: Alabama and Mississippi