ORLANDO, Fla. — President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE is set to face a crucial test of his political influence in Florida, where several key races up and down the ballot are poised to serve as early referenda on the president’s political brand in the country’s largest — and most volatile — swing state.
The state is home to several key races that could be critical to Democrats seeking a blue wave, and Trump has emerged as a central focus of many of them. The real estate mogul won the state in 2016 by little more than 100,000 votes — a razor-thin margin for a state where nearly 10 million voters cast their ballots.
In no race is Trump’s presence felt more than in the battle for the Florida governor’s mansion, which has emerged as a proxy fight of sorts between Trump’s brand of populism and the progressive populism that has emerged as an influential force in Democratic politics in recent years.
Democrat Andrew Gillum, the 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, is vying to become Florida’s first African-American governor — and the first Democrat to occupy the governor’s mansion in two decades.
He’s run on an unabashedly progressive message, positioning himself in stark contrast to Trump.
Meanwhile, Republican Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGOP tentatively decides on Jacksonville for site of convention DeSantis pushing to host Republican National Convention in Florida Florida bars and theaters to reopen starting Friday, DeSantis says MORE, a former congressman who gained prominence moonlighting as a frequent guest on Fox News, has aligned himself closely with the president and has focused no small part of his campaign on a promise to work hand-in-hand with the Trump administration.
The matchup has emerged as the highest-profile among Florida’s competitive races, seen as one of the clearest bellwethers for Trump’s support among the swing voters that could play a pivotal role in deciding whether he’ll spend another four years in the White House in 2020.
Gillum, who scored a come-from-behind primary win over three more-moderate Democrats in August, has focused his campaign on calls to expand Medicaid, raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 and restore voting rights to felons.
He’s also called for Trump’s impeachment, while casting DeSantis as a foot soldier of the president.
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“Donald Trump is weak,” Gillum said during a televised debate against DeSantis on Sunday. “And he performs as all weak people do: They become bullies, and Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte. He’s trying out to be the Trump apprentice at every turn.”
In the race for the Senate in Florida, however, Trump isn’t as clear a presence — although his presidency still looms large.
Republican Rick Scott, the two-term Florida governor seeking to oust Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon Lobbying world The most expensive congressional races of the last decade MORE (D-Fla.) in November, was among the first Republican elected officials to praise Trump’s presidential bid in 2016.
But the governor has kept the president at arm’s length through much of his Senate bid, faced with the stark political reality that Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration and his administration’s widely panned response to hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico last year could isolate the Hispanic voters that he has sought to court.
Nelson has also failed to mention Trump as frequently as Gillum has. The president’s name has made infrequent appearances in the senator’s campaign ads. Likewise, in a contentious debate earlier this month, Nelson and Scott spoke in vague terms about Trump’s policies, rather than about the man himself.
Nelson, a three-term incumbent, is considered among the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this year. His bid against Scott pits him against a Republican who is not only willing to pump millions of dollars of his vast personal fortune into his own campaign, but also has the ability to reach voters with the megaphone of the governor’s mansion.
The Democrats’ focus on Trump’s agenda was on full display on Tuesday as the Florida state party held a “winning-ticket” rally at a downtown Orlando saloon. There former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, stumping for Nelson and other candidates down the ballot, cast the current electoral fight as a “battle for the soul of America.”
“America already knows who Donald Trump is,” the former vice president said solemnly. “The question is, who are we?”
“Think of what [Trump] has said. Think of the things he does. Think of the abuse of power,” he added. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Republican Congress is also choosing this president over the country.”
Democrats are seeking to capitalize on a Democratic base incensed by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. They have held the enthusiasm advantage for much of the past two years, driving hopes among partisans that they will be able to sweep the congressional map in November and retake control of the House, at least.
Those hopes extend to Florida, where Republicans are fending off Democratic challenges in several districts.
Two of the most competitive House races in the state this year are being fought in South Florida, an immensely diverse melting pot, where Trump’s rhetoric on race and immigration could prove politically toxic for Republicans.
Florida’s 26th District, split between Miami-Dade County and Monroe County in the southern tip of the peninsula, presents such a challenge for the GOP. Incumbent Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloTrump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy Republicans can’t exploit the left’s climate extremism without a better idea Progressive Latino group launches first incumbent protection campaign MORE has been among the few Republicans to publicly break with Trump, particularly when it comes to immigration.
He’s facing a challenge from Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Florida International University official who emigrated from Ecuador as a teenager. That race, according to the Cook Political Report, is a “toss-up.”
And in Florida’s 27th District, which encompasses Miami Beach, as well as most of Downtown Miami and its southern suburbs, Republican Maria Elvira Salazar and Democrat Donna Shalala are locked in a closer-than-expected battle to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenTechNet hires Hispanic communications director Bottom line Women are refusing to take the backseat in politics, especially Latinas MORE (R).
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE won the district by nearly 20 points in 2016, and the area, with its urban and suburban landscapes, leans Democratic. But Salazar, a former Spanish-language broadcast journalist, has proven to be a tough opponent for Shalala, and Republicans are ramping up spending in the race in an eleventh-hour bid to hold on to the district.
Those races, along with the contests to replace retiring Rep. Dennis RossDennis Alan RossCourt opens door to annexing the West Bank — and the consequences could be disastrous The problem with Trump’s Middle East peace plan Fears of ‘What’s next?’ will influence Iran’s — and the world’s — reactions MORE (R) in Florida’s 15th District and against Rep. Vern BuchananVernon Gale BuchananMORE (R) in the 16th District, could be pivotal in deciding who will hold the Speaker’s gavel next year.
The party needs to gain at least 23 seats in the chamber to recapture a majority. Democrats face a far more difficult path to a Senate majority. They’re defending more than two dozen seats this year, including 10 in states won by Trump in 2016. Nelson’s seat is among them.
The impact that a blue wave on Election Day could have on Trump’s political brand is not lost on Republicans. Multiple GOP operatives expressed confidence in the president’s ability to bring out the conservative base in November.
But some acknowledged that Trump’s influence is also on the line, as the party has increasingly aligned itself with the president.
“If your party takes a hit, you take a hit too,” one said.