They want to burn the house down. And in Florida, Andrew Gillum is their spark.
Never-Trumpers, that shrinking segment of the Republican Party that can’t fathom supporting someone who has shattered every norm of the presidency, are weighing a nuclear option as the Sunshine State approaches the midterm elections. Faced with a choice between an unabashed liberal and a Donald Trump apprentice in the race for governor, they are crossing the thin red line and voting for a candidate who wants to raise the minimum wage and hike corporate taxes.
In some cases, Republicans are voting for Gillum not because of anything he says or stands for, but because they believe a defeat for GOP nominee Ron DeSantis would be a high-profile indictment of Trump and the first step toward ending the president’s reign. For those who refuse to cede the direction of the party to someone they view as an emperor with no clothes, Gillum is a means to an end.
“There’s a category of Republicans who I’ll call the burn-it-down folks,” said veteran Republican consultant Mac Stipanovich, who has blistered Trump even as the rest of the party in Florida has fallen in line. “They think that the only thing that can change the momentum that is Trump and Trumpism is defeat. Massive, bitter defeat. And they’re voting straight Democrat tickets.”
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For those in the state party disgusted with Trump’s antics and rhetoric, Florida’s 2018 midterms present an existential dilemma. DeSantis, a former congressman who broadened his appeal by defending Trump and condemning Robert Mueller’s Russia probe on Fox News, owes much of his primary win over party-lifer Adam Putnam to the president’s endorsement. And Gov. Rick Scott, who’s running to unseat Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate, chaired a pro-Trump Super PAC in 2016.
After rallying with DeSantis in Tampa in late July, Trump will visit the state twice this week, including an appearance Wednesday in Fort Myers with DeSantis and Scott. The president is hoping to rally the GOP faithful, but is also forcing those in his party who view him as anathema to their values to decide what to do at the ballot box.
“The more he inserts himself into that race the more he helps Andrew Gillum,” Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist from Miami, said Tuesday on CNN.
Exactly how many disaffected Republicans will vote for Gillum is hard to measure. Stipanovich thinks the number will be insignificant even in a state where competitive statewide races have recently been decided by a single percentage point. A whopping 14 people like a “Republicans for Gillum” Facebook page.
More than likely, Stipanovich thinks, Republicans like himself who’ve rejected the politics of their president and can’t stomach the idea of voting for his protégé will protest in a way less offensive to their own political views. Or, he said, they’ll rationalize that DeSantis is not Trump, and vote for him despite misgivings.
“I think it’s fair to say that I will not vote for Ron DeSantis,” said Stipanovich. “But I think it’s unlikely, obviously, that I’ll vote for Andrew Gillum. I consider myself to be a conservative. That would limit me and Never-Trumpers like me to ‘no’ votes, or some cutesy silly statement. Write in Prince Charles, or whatever.”
Mike Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables political booster who once served as a finance co-chairman for Scott, endorsed Hillary Clinton against Trump in the 2016 election but wrote in Jeb Bush’s name on his ballot. He is among the Republican boosters who’ve turned their backs on the party of Trump, shirking party affiliation and investing six figures in Gillum’s campaign.
Bush, on the other hand, supports DeSantis.
Al Hoffman, a major GOP donor who has publicly declared his disappointment in Trump, is also voting for DeSantis even though the Republican nominee is on the opposite side of Hoffman on gun legislation. Hoffman has said he won’t give money any longer to candidates who don’t support an assault weapons ban, but hopes to persuade DeSantis to see things differently after he wins.
“I know Gillum is pro banning assault weapons. But I’m not a Democrat and I’m certainly not a liberal socialistic style Democrat as Gillum is. It’s DeSantis to me. I hope the rest of the Republican party will vote for him too,” said Hoffman.
That rub is one of the reasons that so many Florida Democrats argued for the more moderate Gwen Graham during the Democratic primary. Graham is a former congresswoman who served a term in Republican-leaning North Florida. Gillum ran on an unabashedly progressive platform. But however left he may be, he still thinks he’s luring Republicans to the ballot box.
“I don’t assume that every Republican who has voted is voting for Ron DeSantis,” Gillum said Saturday during an interview. “I think we know in the polling that that’s not the case.”
Some Republicans are breaking for Gillum for reasons unrelated to a distaste for Trump. Jennifer Pitts McKenna, an Orlando Republican who gained a little notoriety when she announced her decision to vote Democrat on Facebook last week, said she’s become disillusioned with Trump since voting for him in 2016. She voted early for Gillum over DeSantis because she thinks he’d be a better governor.
“I don’t know I would say necessarily that my vote is a referendum on Donald Trump,” said Pitts McKenna, who says she ordered a “Republicans for Gillum” T-shirt on a custom clothing website before Gillum’s campaign rolled out its official merchandise.
But in Miami, Marc, a 41-year-old Republican who asked that the Herald not use his last name out of concern of offending his employer, said he’s voting for Democrats in order to wrest political control of the state away from his party. He’s a self-described “fiscal conservative,” and so he’s slightly ill after committing to vote for Gillum. But he thinks the Republican Party has gone off the rails from Trump down to the state Legislature, where he thinks gerrymandering has turned the state into a hyper-partisan snake pit.
“I’ll be voting for Andrew Gillum, unfortunately,” he said.
Former congressman David Jolly also fits that description. He shirked party affiliation this month after serving as a Republican in the U.S. House, saying he could no longer identify with the party of Trump. Since then, he says other Republicans tell him they’re splitting their ballots in order to vote against Ron DeSantis.
“I’ve spoken to Republican voters who undervoted in the 2016 presidential race because they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. But this go-round, they’re bringing themselves to vote for Andrew Gillum,” he said. (An undervote refers to a voter not marking a choice in a particular race.) “There’s a break-it-so-it-can-be-rebuilt element. I also really think it’s just a plain rejection of all things Donald Trump and his surrogates.”
Jolly, who at one point considered a split ticket for governor with Democratic former congressman Patrick Murphy, has already voted.
“I’ve turned in my ballot. I voted for Andrew Gillum,” said Jolly. “The reason is simple: It’s because I’ve served with Ron DeSantis.”
Tampa Bay Times reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.