The Trump Effect could swing several Florida down-ballot races

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Friday in Greensboro, N.C.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Friday in Greensboro, N.C. AP

In Miami, state Democrats are running TV ads against the incumbent Republican state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla that accuse him of having a loose connection to Donald Trump from almost 20 years ago.

In Tampa, Democrat Bob Buesing is pressing his state Senate rival Dana Young to denounce Trump’s past comments about women.

And outside of Orlando, new television ads from Democrat Stephanie Murphy tell voters that incumbent U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said “I love Trump,” earlier this year.

Only two weeks ago, both major parties and political experts concluded that there would be minimal impact from Trump on down-ballot races for Congress and the state Legislature.

But that all changed with the release of an Access Hollywood video last week showing Trump bragging about grabbing women sexually without consent. Trump’s unguarded moment from 2005 has ignited a fire storm that has Republicans fretting about the “Trump Effect.”

In some races, Democrats are running ads pinning opponents to Trump. In others, Republicans who unendorsed Trump are now facing a backlash from ardent Trump supporters.

And in dozens of others, Republicans are ducking and refusing to answer questions in hopes of running out the clock.

“It would be better for everybody down ballot if the Republican nominee for president were bringing folks, rather than shedding them like hair on a German shepherd,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican strategist and lobbyist who has become one of the #NeverTrump movement’s leading voices.

Races that should be a lock for Republicans in a normal election cycle are unraveling, said veteran Florida Democratic strategic Tom Eldon.

“There are races out there that are not typically Democratic targets, but are going to be very close now,” said Eldon.

It’s not going to lift every Democrat with a pulse, Eldon said, but it will boost those who are running good campaigns.

Christian Ulvert, a Miami Dade Democratic political consultant, predicted a “massive impact on down-ballot races” in South Florida and the possibility that Democrat Patrick Murphy may unseat Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race. A Trump antagonist during his own presidential run, Rubio has promised to vote for him in November because he wants to deny Hillary Clinton the White House.

“The message and tone at the top of the ticket is crucial to everything down ballot,” Ulvert said.

Not all Republicans are buying it. Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, said he thinks Miami-Dade voters won’t punish other Republicans.

Polls earlier this year showed about 75 percent of Republican voters support Rubio. Now, about 85 percent are backing him. In some state senate races in north Florida, Trump has brought an energy to the GOP base that may get more voters to the polls.

“I don’t see Republicans punishing other Republicans for supporting Trump,” Diaz said. “I see the opposite, people who are not happy candidates won’t stand by Trump.”

But Democrats see it differently. In close districts in Tampa, Miami and Orlando, party leaders have perked up.

Alan Clendenin, a long time activist with the Hillsborough County Democratic party, told the party faithful in a recent email that they need to target Rubio, Young and others for backing Trump.

“Floridians need to send Marco Rubio, Dana Young and every coward a message,” Clendenin said.

It’s complicated in the 13th Congressional race between former Gov. Charlie Crist and Republican David Jolly. Jolly has pointed out that Crist, who doesn’t support Trump, once golfed and dined with the real estate tycoon. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee meanwhile started television ads that show Jolly, who also doesn’t support Trump, shaking hands with him — a trick considering that the two have never met.

The Trump Effect plays out differently from region to region. In Miami-Dade, Democrats are convinced Republicans are so appalled by Trump they may not even show up to vote, putting candidates like Diaz de la Portilla on the verge of losing to Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez. In Tampa Bay, Young has expressed anger at Trump.

“As a woman and the mother of two teenage daughters, I find Mr. Trump’s comments disgusting … I am voting for Donald Trump because he is a better choice over Hillary Clinton, but I will admit, he is making it harder and harder for me to continue to do so,” Young said.

But that may not convince anti-Trump Republicans.

“Trump is definitely an anchor around her neck,” Eldon said.

Republicans in what had been safer districts are being tested as well. Mica’s district in central Florida was not considered very competitive for most of the year. National analysts say the race is now a toss-up.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney is defending safe turf — a newly redrawn district stretching from Lakeland and Sarasota to Lake Okeechobee that Mitt Romney won with 58 percent of the vote in 2012.

And yet Rooney has been under siege since he announced last week he could no longer support Trump. He’s been swamped by phone calls, letters and on local Republican talk radio show by Trump supporters vowing to support John Sawyer III, an independent in the race against him. With Cape Coral Democrat April Freeman in the race and capable of pulling 40 percent of the vote, Republicans are now worried.

Stipanovich said Rooney is being “battered” for taking a stand. Stipanovich said there is little doubt in his mind that 90 percent of elected Republicans in Florida know Trump would not be a good president, yet they are “hiding under their beds.”

“This is a very difficult time for the Republican party and it is a shameful for Republican officials,” Stipanovich said.

Times/Herald reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Kristen M. Clark contributed to this story.