THE VILLAGES -- It’s happy hour on a steamy summer evening, and the band is playing covers of Jimmy Buffett, Pat Benatar and Aerosmith.
Couples sway to the music. Others shuffle in an uneven line dance.
As the sun goes down at the Villages, a 55-and-up retirement community, a crowd slathered in sunscreen ambles about, tossing back vodka and gin-and-tonics (easy on the tonic).
“Most everyone worked 40 to 45 years to get here,” says Mike Mittal, a 69-year-old retired corporate pilot from Cincinnati who moved to town four years ago. “And they just want to have fun now.”
Their playground is a five-square-mile area about 90 miles northeast of Tampa Bay that once was rolling cow pasture and ripe watermelon fields. Disneyland for Adults or The Bubble is what residents call it now. The grandkids call it Seniors Gone Wild.
This new twist on retirement living promises robust sales for years to come, but the most important feature about the Villages transcends Florida real estate.
Drawing retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, this planned community is one of the most crucial — and dependable — voting blocs in the nation. The development’s 61,000 registered voters reside in a battleground region that Republicans need to dominate if they are to defeat President Barack Obama in Novem- ber.
Twice as many Republicans as Democrats live here. The independents tilt rightward, too. With a voter turnout averaging 80 percent, it has become a fixed stop on the campaign trail for Mitt Romney, who has visited twice in the past year.
One man is credited with molding this constituency.
The creator of the Villages, H. Gary Morse, inherited his father’s development business and turned it into one of the most lucrative residential projects in the United States, ushering him into the ranks of the world’s richest. Morse and his family have contributed $1.8 million to the cause of removing Obama from the White House.
His biggest contribution, however, will be the Villages’ vote on Election Day. Morse, now 75, controls just about every facet of life here. And that includes politics, say Democrats like Joseph Flynn, a 69-year-old retired insurance executive from Connecticut.
“You don’t know you’re being controlled, but you really are,” Flynn said. “And Morse is the one who controls you. He wants that control . . . to influence what he can, including the next president.”
Morse seems to be everywhere in the Villages — and nowhere.
He not only sold the project’s 40,000 homes, but he owns the mortgage company that financed many of them. He owns part of the bank, too. And the hospital, the water and sewer utility, the TV and radio stations, newspaper, monthly magazine, country clubs and commercial center that has lured a T.G.I. Friday’s, Panera Bread Bakery Cafe, Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, and IZOD.
“There isn’t anything that makes money here that he doesn’t get a piece of,” said Flynn.
Yet like dozens of other residents and merchants interviewed, Flynn said he has never met or even seen the man.
Morse did not return telephone calls, and his staffers would not disclose which of the several offices he works at in the Villages. His spokesman, Gary Lester, would not comment. The top lobbyist for the Villages, former Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas, hung up on a reporter asking about Morse.