Can Florida Trump clubs migrate support for Trump to support for GOP?

1:29 p.m Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 Local
Donald Trump supporters boo the media following Trump’s rally at the South Florida Fairgrounds on October 13, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Even after Donald Trump beat two Florida favorite sons to win the state’s Republican presidential primary, then captured the GOP nomination and the White House itself, the president and his supporters are seen as an exotic species by many in the Republican Party.

The Palm Beach County GOP has appointed a “Trump outreach coalition chair” and the Republican Party of Florida has encouraged the formation of local “Trump Republican Clubs” around the state to try to persuade Trump supporters to turn out for GOP candidates in 2018 when Trump himself isn’t on the ballot.

In some ways the GOP is going through what Democrats experienced eight years ago after Barack Obama flipped Florida from red to blue by energizing new voters who were drawn more to him than to the Democratic Party. Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012, but when he wasn’t atop the ballot Democrats couldn’t capture the Florida governorship in 2010 or 2014 and suffered other Sunshine State setbacks.

“The challenge is, they (Republicans) are going to find, as Obama showed, it’s not easy to translate people’s support for you into a larger party effort,” said longtime Florida Democratic strategist Steven Schale, who was Obama’s 2008 Florida director.

Obama was originally an insurgent candidate who challenged Democratic establishment favorite Hillary Clinton, just as Trump’s anti-establishment campaign took on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other mainstream Republicans.

“A lot of people got into supporting a candidate because that candidate wasn’t the candidate of the party,” Schale said.

Republican leaders in Florida recognize that.

“There are still thousands and thousands and thousands of Republicans out there that love Trump every day but they may not love the Republican Party every day or every third day,” said Volusia County GOP Chairman Tony Ledbetter, who has helped form Trump clubs around the state. Ledbetter said the clubs are an effort to build relations with Trump backers who aren’t GOP stalwarts “so that when we get into 2018 we’re able to communicate with them.”

The state party has given its blessing to eight Trump clubs around Florida. A ninth, in Orange County, recently broke away from the party. Other clubs, such as the Collier For Trump Club Inc. in Collier County, formed outside the GOP structure because organizers did not regard local Republican leaders as supportive of the Republican president.

Palm Beach County Trump supporters are considering forming a club as well, said Joe Budd, a former county chairman for Trump who became the county GOP’s state committeeman in December.

“A lot of these (Trump) voters were not Republicans and the whole goal is to convert them to Republicans and get them engaged as Republicans,” Budd said.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a prominent Trump critic, says it will be difficult to integrate Trump supporters and the traditional Republican base.

“I think the Trump Republican Clubs are a reflection of the fact that Donald Trump’s the leader of a movement, not the leader of a party,” said Jolly, who wants a Republican to challenge Trump in 2020. “The base of the party and the Trump base have always been different.”

Jolly described the Trump base as “more populist” and less interested in “long-held policy prescriptions” than traditional Republicans.

Frequent cable TV guest Jolly is part of a group of Republicans whose criticisms of the president have drawn the ire of Trump supporters. Others include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Many Trump supporters are more animated in denouncing these Republicans than in going after Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“We have Mitch McConnell. We have Paul Ryan and John McCain all coming out and making comments about what’s happened with Charlottesville and with the (former Arizona Sheriff Joe) Arpaio pardon. Lindsey Graham. I think they are still trying to fight Trump. I hate to use the term, but he’s got to drain the swamp,” said Tom Ravana, a Naples resident who along with his wife, JoAnn DeBartolo, formed the Collier For Trump Club Inc.

“I think a lot of people that are Trump supporters are not happy with the Republican Party. I think they’re angry with the party, actually,” said DeBartolo.

Despite that anger, DeBartolo and Ravana predict Trump supporters will turn out in 2018, when the governorship and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat will be on the statewide ballot.

Budd, the Palm Beach County GOP committeeman and Trump loyalist, believes Trump’s 2016 victory will motivate his supporters next year.

“I think the Trump people are going to stay engaged. They saw a big victory and they’re seeing momentum,” Budd said. But he said the Republican establishment will have to pay more heed to the Trump base.

“I think more and more they will need to be listening to them,” Budd said. “The establishment’s going to have to pay attention.”

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