MAGA momentum is building in Florida as former President Donald Trump‘s backers works to unify a party sharply divided by the primary contest with Gov. Ron DeSantis and demonstrate that a state once considered purple is now redder than one of Trump’s signature hats.
Vehicle parades known as “Trump Trains” are starting up again as diehard MAGA followers gear up for the election.
Top elected Republicans who were backing Gov. Ron DeSantis have shifted over to Trump after DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race.
And on Saturday the Florida GOP formally endorsed Trump over former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who continues to wage a longshot primary bid.
Trump’s campaign has declared that “Florida is Trump Country” and the state party appears eager to carry that banner, from elected leaders down to grassroots activists.
The early effort to unify the Florida GOP around Trump comes after a heated primary challenge from DeSantis.
DeSantis dropped out Jan. 21 and endorsed Trump, but there is evidence of lingering tension between the two sides.
There also are signs that while elected leaders, party activists and the most conservative and vocal elements of the GOP are staunchly behind Trump, some average GOP voters aren’t thrilled that he is the likely nominee.
As the party rallies around Trump and focuses on attacking President Joe Biden, reluctant Trump backers within the GOP will get behind him, some Republicans believe.
“I think everybody’s going to rejoin the team when they see what a disaster Biden’s policies have been,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters, a former Florida GOP chair and early Trump supporter.
GOP nominee likely to carry Florida in November
Florida has been trending red, and the Republican presidential nominee is likely to carry the state in the general election.
Trump twice won Florida and will be favored here again if he wins the nomination, despite the fact he’s facing 91 felony counts from four criminal cases, including one over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
How strong Trump appears to be in Florida could be a big factor in whether Biden’s campaign decides to compete in the state.
The Florida GOP is working to give Trump a running start in the general election. Trump’s record in Florida — and the state’s rightward shift — gives him plenty of reason to be optimistic about uniting the GOP and mounting a strong general election campaign.
In 2016, Trump bested two of the Florida GOP’s favorite sons – former Gov. Jeb Bush and current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio – in proving he was the dominant force in state Republican politics.
Trump carried Florida by a percentage point in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, helping vault him to the White House. He expanded his Florida margin of victory to three percentage points in 2020, despite losing to Biden nationally, and could be poised to do even better in 2024.
A December survey of Florida voters by Redfield & Wilton Strategies had Trump leading Biden in the state by 11 percentage points.
Trump changed his home address from New York to Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Palm Beach, in the runup to the 2020 election, becoming a full-time Florida Man. Since then, Florida has attracted some of the leading figures in MAGA world, making it a haven for Trumpism.
Long a swing state, Florida has become more conservative during Trump’s time atop GOP politics.
Florida Republicans lately have far outpaced Democrats in voter registration. Spending by national Democratic groups in Florida plummeted during the 2022 midterm election cycle, a sign they don’t view the state as competitive.
Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of an Orlando-based group that works on voter registration and turnout efforts in minority communities, said she’s seen no indication of investment in such efforts by national groups in Florida this cycle.
“I have not seen evidence of making Florida a priority on anyone’s list,” said Burney-Clark, who describes her group, Equal Ground, as the state’s “preeminent Black-led voting rights organization.”
“I have not had conversations and I have not seen a semblance of prioritizing Florida,” she added.
DeSantis carried the state by a shocking 19 percentage points in 2022 and, for a moment, seemed poised to eclipse Trump as the leading GOP figure in the state and nationally.
A 2022 poll by Victory Insights released shortly after DeSantis won re-election found that Florida Republicans preferred him for president over Trump by a 12-point margin. But within a few months Trump came “roaring back,” noted Victory pollster Ben Galbraith.
Former president leads Florida’s governor in popularity
Trump led DeSantis in Florida by 41 points in a Victory poll released in December.
DeSantis endorsed Trump on the day he dropped out of the presidential race. Many high-profile DeSantis supporters in Florida soon followed, throwing their support behind the former president.
When it comes to unifying the party, Galbraith noted that only 28% of DeSantis supporters in Florida had an unfavorable view of Trump in the December survey.
“This suggests that DeSantis supporters by and large will end up coalescing behind Trump,” Galbraith said.
Florida GOP activists are working to speed up that process. Lee County GOP Chair Michael Thompson is among the grassroots activists who pushed for the Florida GOP to approve a resolution officially endorsing Trump.
The measure passed on Saturday by a voice vote, with those in the room saying the support was overwhelming but not unanimous. Gruters, an ardent Trump backer, was selected as the Republican national committeeman for Florida at the same meeting.
Thompson described Haley’s campaign as “nothing but more election interference … from not only the deep state but the establishment RINOs we have in our party.” He is not worried about alienating more moderate GOP voters by trying to influence the primary.
“We’re going to need everyone in the general election, absolutely,” he said. “But I think people need to understand at this point in time, politically and historically in our nation’s existence, there is clearly a leader not just Republicans but the people in America are behind.”
He added: “We’re rolling downhill behind Trump.”
Thompson noted that Trump supporters in Cape Coral already are planning a “Trump Train” car parade this month.
“It’s gonna start getting wild,” he said. “We’re only in February, we haven’t even gotten to the presidential preference (primary) yet and they’re already doing Trump Trains.”
Among Florida GOP activists who are heavily involved in the party, Haley barely registers. She received zero votes in presidential straw polls conducted by the Lee County GOP in January and the Indian River County GOP in December.
DeSantis didn’t fare much better, collecting just a handful of votes in the straw polls taken before he dropped out. Trump dominated, winning 95% of the votes cast by Lee GOP activists.
“I’ve seen overwhelming support for the president as we get closer to the election,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota congressman who endorsed Trump’s campaign last year.
A sizeable minority of average GOP voters in Florida would prefer someone other than Trump as their nominee, though.
A Victory poll from December found that 18.8% of Florida Republicans backed DeSantis, 7.6% supported Haley, 5.3% favored Chris Christie, 1.3% backed Vivek Ramaswamy and another 7.5% were undecided or preferred another candidate.
Trump was at 59.5% support.
While DeSantis eventually endorsed Trump, the primary was acrimonious. Trump mocked DeSantis as “DeSanctimonious,” while DeSantis said Trump has “lost the zip and his fastball” and is too polarizing to win a general election.
The rift between DeSantis world and Trump world in Florida is still evident.
DeSantis backers still sour about primary
In late January, when Florida GOP Chair Evan Power announced that he would appear on an Internet show hosted by Trump supporter Laura Loomer, a provocative figure who hounded the DeSantis campaign during the primary, some former DeSantis campaign staffers cried foul.
A commentator on X criticized Power for agreeing to appear with someone who “said some of the most despicable things I’ve ever heard about our favorite Governor.”
Bryan Griffin, who served as a DeSantis campaign spokesman, wrote on X that he “agreed” with the individual criticizing Power. Christina Pushaw, who handled rapid response for the DeSantis campaign, called Power’s decision “disappointing.”
Power canceled the appearance, saying he had another commitment.
Even after dropping out of the race, DeSantis has raised concerns about Trump’s campaign. In an interview on the “Steve Deace Show” shortly after ending his campaign, DeSantis said the low GOP turnout in the Iowa Caucuses was a sign of discontent with Trump as the likely nominee and a “huge warning sign for Republicans.”
Trump, meanwhile, has continued to grouse about DeSantis after he dropped out of the race and ridicule him in private, according to Rolling Stone. Trump wants to turn ‘Ron into a political eunuch’ and undermine his future in the GOP, a source who spoke to the former president told Rolling Stone.
Asked about whether he perceives any lingering resentment within the DeSantis camp after the primary, Gruters said “not at all.”
“I think the party is unified at the base level, at the party level,” Gruters said. “It’s no hard feeling either way. We’re focused on winning.”
Steube said the party’s attention should be on Biden, not a primary that he views as essentially over.
“I think we all should line up behind the clear frontrunner who has already been there and not waste any more time in the primary and focus on beating Joe Biden in November,” he said.
Biden is a unifying force for many Republican voters, some of whom still have reservations about Trump.
Voters weigh Biden against Trump in the White House
Sarasota Republican Denise Carthew, 70, voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, but had concerns about backing him again after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in an effort to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.
The mob was in large part motivated by Trump’s unfounded claims about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Trump’s efforts to overturn the election have been criticized as an assault on the foundation of democracy, and led to an indictment by special counsel Jack Smith. A federal appeals court panel recently rejected Trump’s claim of presidential immunity in the case.
Jan. 6 seemed to be a turning point when many Republicans were ready to break with Trump, but since then his popularity has rebounded in the party.
Carthew, a retired nurse, didn’t like how Trump seemed to minimize his role in Jan. 6.
“When Jan. 6 happened, I kind of thought Trump was not completely honest in what he said he was doing and for that reason I thought: ‘I’m not going to vote for him again,’ ” said Carthew as she shopped at a Sarasota mall last week. “But seeing what Biden has done, I decided to go back to Trump.”
Carthew added of Biden: “I think his dementia – I really believe he has dementia – is affecting his decisions.”
Siesta Key resident Renee Chase, 63, an independent who works as a teacher’s aide and voted for Trump in 2020, also raised concerns about the former president, saying he is a “pompous (expletive).” But given the choice between “senile dude or full-of-himself dude,” Chase would pick Trump.
Dave Rumsey, a semi-retired Michigan resident who spends the winter in Venice, expressed dismay that the election is likely to come down to Trump vs. Biden. A Republican, Rumsey voted for Trump twice but said he “needs to grow up.”
“Trump did a great job when he was in there with his policies, but he’s lost his mind,” said Rumsey, 68.
Rumsey is sick of Trump’s name calling and doesn’t want a president who is “vindictive,” but said he wouldn’t vote for Biden, slamming his immigration policies, and would consider voting for Trump again.
“I’d probably have to,” he said. “But I’d also consider not voting, and I’d definitely be looking for a third party candidate.”
Brian Hughes, who is leading Trump’s campaign in Florida, dismissed questions about lingering GOP divisions in the state, saying “the unification of Florida Republicans is complete.”
“Florida Republicans know that it’s time to turn our attention to saving this nation by defeating Biden in November,” he added.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Florida GOP looks to move past primary, unite around Trump