Donald Trump used the word "animals" while talking immigration Wednesday, and Democrats pounced.
They'd been waiting.
At a White House event discussing California's sanctuary city laws, Trump listened as a local sheriff lamented that the state's policies prevent local law enforcement from referring MS-13 gang members to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. And then Trump vented.
"You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are," Trump said in response, without explicitly mentioning the gang. "These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before."
The comments set off another round of condemnation from the left for a president who's become known for using inflammatory language to communicate a hard-line stance on immigration. Democratic leaders quickly framed the comments as the latest affront from the president who opened his campaign in 2015 by referring to Mexicans as drug dealers, criminals and rapists.
But the White House defended Trump's remarks on Thursday, and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said people decrying Trump's remarks are defending MS-13. Trump said the same Thursday evening.
"Frankly, I don't think the term POTUS used was strong enough," Huckabee Sanders said.
Regardless, Republicans spent Thursday playing defense, which is where Democrats want them.
Heading into the mid-term elections, Trump's penchant for incendiary, off-the-cuff remarks is among the reasons the country's minority party is so optimistic they can win in November, particularly in areas like South Florida, where high percentages of voters were either born in a different country or born to parents who fled to the U.S. to find a better life. The president's knack for offending other cultures and dragging lawmakers into his vortex could be a great equalizer even for strong incumbents.
As the White House tried to explain Trump's comments Thursday, Democratic challengers in South Florida sought to put their opponents in the same position. Mary Barzee Flores, a former judge and trial lawyer running against longtime Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, called the incumbent a "coward" for staying silent on Trump's latest remarks.
Barzee Flores is Diaz-Balart's first legitimate opponent in a decade, and she switched from a loaded congressional primary on the other side of the county to run in Diaz-Balart's more conservative northwestern Miami-Dade district that extends across the Everglades into Naples. The congressman, whose parents fled Cuba after the Castro revolution, was among the politicians who received collateral damage by being in the room in January when Trump referred to some poor African nations as "shitholes."
Back then, he didn't have a serious opponent. Now he's running against a Democrat with at least $400,000 to spend and the backing of national groups who are trying flip the House later this year.
"Congressman Diaz-Balart is a coward," Barzee Flores said. "When the president infamously referred to other nations as 'shitholes,' Congressman Diaz-Balart sat right by his side in total silence, while even members of his own party had the courage to stand up. If he truly wants to call himself a representative of our community, he should speak up when immigrants and people of color are attacked."
Diaz-Balart did not confirm the president's comments in January, saying that he has never divulged the content of private conversations to the general public. He also didn't directly address Barzee Flores' criticism or Trump's recent comments, though he did applaud federal efforts to combat MS-13 in an interview on Thursday.
"MS-13 are narco-trafficking, murderous savages and as far as I'm concerned, the federal government has to do everything and anything to confront it, defeat it and stop it, end of story," Diaz-Balart said.
While Diaz-Balart is facing organized opposition for the first time, another South Florida Republican, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, is used to it, having run competitive reelection campaigns ever since entering Congress in 2014. The congressman has often been vocally critical of Trump and is leading an effort to bypass Republican leaders to pass an immigration bill, but also said he'd welcome the president on the campaign trail if Trump embraced his record and recently traveled with Trump to Key West.
"There are big things happening in this town, big decisions being made that have a real-life impact on people, that's what's most important," said Curbelo, who's been joined in his immigration push by Diaz-Balart. "The way leaders express themselves is also important, but we should not be obsessed with it. The way the president speaks is no surprise to anyone, he has spoken that way his entire life and a lot of people decided to vote for him."
Curbelo said Democrats are missing the mark if their campaign strategy revolves around 24-7 outrage over Trump's use of language.
"My understanding is he was referring to gang members," Curbelo said. "I don't speak that way generally. I also don't have any major objection to violent gang members being called animals. So are people going to demagogue issues for their convenience? Do we need to show... fake outrage at gang members who kill people being called animals? C'mon... give me a break."
His likely opponent, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, says Curbelo can't play the middle road.
"Too often, Congressman Curbelo has stood by in silence while his party mocked our American values and degraded immigrants," she said. "Even worse than his silence, just two months ago, he welcomed President Trump (to Key West). Either Congressman Curbelo stands with his party in Washington, along with his President, or he stands with us and our community here in South Florida. He cannot have it both ways."
But Curbelo questions whether Democrats are over-playing their hand and said voters care more about issues than whatever flippant comment Trump made the previous day. If the Democrats want to use that against him, he said, that's their prerogative.
"They have no ideas, they have nothing meaningful to run on so they have to focus on manipulating certain statements," Curbelo said. "And that's politics. That's fine."