Gillum and DeSantis spar in Florida governor debate
Donald Trump did everything Ron DeSantis asked.
The president sent word to some of his wealthy Palm Beach friends to steer donations to DeSantis’ campaign for Florida governor. He allowed the DeSantis campaign to send text messages in his name to Trump supporters in Florida who failed to vote early. And he agreed, just in the last few days, to touch down in Florida one last time before Election Day on his way back from a campaign stop in Montana Saturday.
Since DeSantis won the Republican primary two months ago following Trump’s endorsement, the two men have spoken by phone a half dozen times, including before both debates between DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum.
Trump and DeSantis will appear together Wednesday night at a rally in the Fort Myers area.
As a congressman, DeSantis refused to endorse Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Now, DeSantis has determined his only path to victory in the governor’s race is with Trump’s backing.
This story is based on interviews with several people familiar with Trump’s actions who were not authorized to speak publicly.
DeSantis’ stategy may work in states where Trump won by 10, 20, even 30 points — like South Dakota or West Virginia — but maybe not in Florida, a notorious swing state.
Recent polls show DeSantis trailing Gillum in the nation’s biggest battleground state — where Trump only narrowly won against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, where equal numbers of people approve of him and disapprove, and where more Democrats are registered than Republicans.
Trump has campaigned across the nation for candidates in next week’s midterm elections but no state is as important to Trump than Florida — where he spends much of the winter — one of two states with competitive Senate and governor races. It will also, of course, be a major prize in the presidential contest in 2020 with its 29 electoral votes up for grabs.
Republicans expect to pour more than $50 million into the governor’s race, which is shaping up to be one of the most expensive races in state history, according to someone familiar with the spending.
Already, the Republican National Committee has led an effort to reach out to a staggering 5 million potential voters in Florida in 2017 and 2018 by knocking on 3 million doors and making 2.6 million phone calls, said RNC spokesman Rick Gorka.
Stephen Lawson, a DeSantis campaign spokesman, declined to answer specific questions about Trump.
“President Trump remains a friend and a supporter, and we are honored to have his support,” he said. “There is no question that President Trump has created a thriving economy and we will need his help to continue moving Florida forward in a direction that provides real opportunity to all Floridians.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is better known and has had years to try to make inroads with swing voters, has managed to distance himself from Trump without rebuking him in his effort to unseat longtime Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
But DeSantis, who wasn’t expected to win the primary, hasn’t had the chance, leaving him with little strategy beyond persuading Trump’s winning coalition to back him, said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican strategist.
“He hasn’t had the time or the ability, the credibility, to distance himself in any meaningful way,” Stipanovich said. “DeSantis is doing what he has to do. He needs that Republican base to come out.”
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida, said DeSantis has examined how Trump changed the electoral math in a dozen Florida counties both with turnout and victory margins in 2016.
“Their view of the case is it’s an entirely base election,” he said. “As long as they can turn out a bigger base, which they do by motivating the Trump coalition, they can win.”
Trump didn’t know DeSantis well but was impressed with him after watching him appear frequently on Fox News supporting the president’s agenda, people close to Trump say. Adam Putnam, the state’s agriculture commissioner and establishment Republican candidate. was leading in the Republican primary until Trump endorsed DeSantis on Twitter in December 2017 after the two shared a flight together on Air Force One.
DeSantis quickly tied himself to Trump on policy, declining at one point to name a single issue on which he disagreed, even as he was criticized for not having his own platform.
Earlier this year, DeSantis opposed oil drilling off Florida’s coast after Trump’s proposal to open up most federal waters to oil drilling. In September, he disputed Trump’s assertion that the death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was inflated. But the differences have been few.
“I can’t think of a candidate in this country who has leaned in more to the presidential endorsement than Ron DeSantis,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said on Fox News earlier this year. “He will be a reliable supporter of the Trump agenda.”
In September, after polls showed Gillum leading in polls, DeSantis brought in Susie Wiles, a veteran Republican strategist who helped Trump win Florida in the final months of the 2016 presidential race.
In the primary, DeSantis used Trump in TV ads and mailers. In the general election, DeSantis has asked Trump to focus on ways to make sure his supporters actually vote.
“There should be no reason that anybody who came out to vote for the president in 2016 should sit on the sidelines in 2018,” DeSantis told a Boca Raton crowd last weekend.
Trump will appear with DeSantis at Hertz Arena outside Fort Myers Wednesday and then again at the Pensacola International Airport Saturday.
At the rallies, the DeSantis campign will track which of the expected tens of thousands of Trump supporters who replied online or signed cards at the events have voted early. Those who have not voted by Monday will receive a text message or robocall from Trump urging them to vote for DeSantis. The campaign will also target Floridians who requested absentee ballots but have not turned them in.
Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Jacksonville, said Trump can help in both conservative areas of the state, where he needs Republicans to get out the vote.
“Trump’s sole function is generating turnout among the voters that came out to support him,” he said. “People who voted for him and liked him two years ago still like him and would be more inclined to vote for a candidate he backed.”
Florida Republicans had hoped Trump could visit Daytona Beach, which sits along the all-important I-4 corridor, the swing area of the swing state. He won the area in 2016 by big margins and DeSantis repesented it in Congress until he recently resigned to run for governor full time. But Trump’s schedule allowed him instead to appear at a rally in Pensacola, where many people will likely come from neighboring Alabama.
Between Wednesday and Election Day, Trump is expected to make 11 stops in eight states: Missouri, West Virginia, Indiana, Montana, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. He will visit Florida, Missouri and Indiana each twice.
“He needs him to come here and rally the grassroots,” said Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida lobbyist who is close to Trump who raised money for DeSantis.. “‘There’s no better person than the president to get out of the vote.”