With Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, Florida Democrats are predicting major gains in down-ballot races for Congress and the Florida Legislature in the nation’s biggest presidential toss-up state.
But not all Republicans are worried.
“Just judging by the yard signs I’m seeing, Donald Trump is bringing enthusiasm into this election season that maybe wouldn’t be there otherwise,” said incoming state Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose leadership hinges on his party retaining a majority in that chamber.
“But I do think that anybody who is running this year really has to stand on their own,” he said.
There’s a lot at stake in this election with every legislative seat being decided, a wide-open U.S. Senate race and an unprecedented number of Floridians in Congress leaving office. And Trump’s steadily poor showing in polls among women and minority voters has emboldened Democrats.
Democrats have been the minority in the state Legislature for 20 years and hold only 10 of the state’s 27 seats in the U.S. House.
Republican campaign consultant Rick Wilson, outspoken on social media as part of a #NeverTrump movement opposing the presumptive nominee, said the Florida GOP could be in for a rough election year.
“It could be a slaughter,” said Wilson, who Trump once characterized on Twitter as “dumb as a rock.”
“My advice to any Republican is, ‘You’re just going to have to run your own campaign, and keep your distance from the top of the ticket,’” he said.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll puts a Trump-Hillary Clinton contest as basically too close to call in Florida right now. While Clinton clearly faces her own election challenges, Trump’s free-swinging campaign has turned off sizable voting blocs, which analysts say will make it more difficult to win a state as diverse as Florida.
And most analysts agree that a Trump loss would echo.
The outcome of Florida’s U.S. Senate race, to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Marco Rubio, one of 15 Republicans Trump vanquished on his way to becoming the presumptive nominee, could shape which party controls that chamber.
Tough primary fights are underway on both sides.
In the state Senate, which Republicans now control 26-14, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, said his party hopes to pick up at least three seats. But a couple of more GOP seats could flip if Trump repels enough voters, Clemens said.
All 40 Florida Senate seats are up for grabs this year, under a court-ordered redistricting plan that also should help Democratic chances.
Voters in 21 of the redrawn districts supported President Barack Obama in 2012, including all six seats in Miami-Dade County. Under the old Senate map, only 17 of the 40 districts supported Obama.
Miami-Dade is certain to prove a battleground, where Trump’s pounding on the issue of illegal immigration is expected to resonate in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.
“If you’re a Republican in a swing Senate district, I think you need to get as far away from Trump as you can,” said Clemens, in line to become Senate Democratic Leader in 2018.
Still, one of those targeted Republicans, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said he wasn’t worried.
“I’m running on my merits and my track record,” said Diaz de la Portilla, considered a moderate Republican and first elected to the Senate in 2010.
He supported Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in the presidential race and said he hasn’t made up his mind on who he’ll vote for in November.
Asked if he’d ever share a campaign stage with Trump, Diaz de la Portilla sidestepped.
“I have my own race,” he said. “I have my hands full.”
Within the Florida House, where Republicans control 81 of the 120 seats, Democratic consultant Steve Schale has cited 10 seats that could switch parties this fall because of their demographics or expected match-ups.
Nine of them are held by Republicans. Because voter turnout spikes in a presidential election year, Florida Democrats usually make some state House gains, only to lose them the next election cycle.
Schale’s analysis was released before Republican Rep. Patrick Rooney of West Palm Beach said last week that he wouldn’t seek re-election. Although the northern Palm Beach County district is Republican-leaning, the race could become a contest now that the seat is open.
But Trump’s Florida co-chairman, Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who is running for a House seat himself, scoffs at talk of a Democratic tidal wave.
“As a candidate, I think having Donald Trump on the ballot is going to help me,” Gruters said. “He’s going to attract more voters and that’s going to help up and down. But we do need to run as a unified party.”
So far, that’s been elusive.
Across Florida’s congressional delegation, 12 of the state’s 17 Republicans say they’ll back Trump or, more guardedly, their “party’s nominee.” U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both of Miami, say they won’t support Trump.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, a U.S. Senate candidate, says he won’t vote for Hillary Clinton but “has not committed to supporting Donald Trump.”
Just as in the Legislature, many of Florida’s members of Congress had backed Jeb Bush before he abandoned his campaign in February. Many then endorsed Rubio until he, too dropped out after losing the state’s March primary to Trump.
Also, with the recent announcement by first-term U.S. Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Bonita Springs, that he would not seek re-election this fall, nine of the 27-member Florida congressional delegation plan to leave the House.
Six of those exiting are Republicans, giving Democrats a chance to make inroads.
The filing period for legislative, U.S. Senate and U.S. House races in Florida isn’t until June 20-24. But the political handicapping is engulfing both parties.
“The Trump factor is still hard to gauge,” said Schale, the Democratic consultant. “For a lot of candidates in other races, it’s going to depend on where you are and how big the margin is” (of an expected Trump defeat).
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