Donald Trump will campaign in Tampa Tuesday, having transformed, in a way no one could have imagined just a few years ago, the Republican Party of Florida into the Florida Party of Trump.
You can see it in every Republican primary in every corner of the state, as rivals argue over who supports the president more.
You can see it in the Republican gubernatorial primary, where the No. 1 issue is who will fight illegal immigrants harder.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, long a rising star seemingly on a trajectory to the governor’s mansion, is losing to a relative newcomer, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis. That’s because Trump endorsed DeSantis, for whom Trump will campaign Tuesday at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
You can see it at local Republican club and executive committee gatherings. Newly fired up party activists are edging out one-time Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio acolytes. Longtime party activists sound more concerned with loyalty to Trump than what were once core conservative principles.
“Why do we need a traditional conservative?” said retired teacher Ann Ottaviano at a recent Tampa Republican Women Federated club reception when asked about Trump’s break from long-standing GOP orthodoxy on issues including free trade, Russia, deficit reduction, and family values.
“He’s very bombastic, I understand that, but in his bombastic way, he says he’s going to do something and then he follows up on it right away,” she said. “He’ll probably end up being the best president this country has ever had.”
The Trump effect on the Grand Old Party is evident nationwide but is especially striking in a state where Republican politics for more than two decades had been so dominated by former Gov. Jeb Bush. The former governor’s conservative ideas and activism defined a state party that today is driven at least as much by personality and populism as ideology.
“As much as I may be troubled by this evolution, I give [Trump] credit for single-handedly transforming an entire political party,” said former Florida Republican Chairman Al Cardenas, one of the architects of building GOP dominance in Tallahassee. “There’s a blind loyalty to him that I have never seen for any politician.”
For every life-long conservative fretting publicly about conservatism under Trump there are at least 10 Florida Republicans celebrating the party’s metamorphosis.
“We’re living in Trump world. Thank God the Trump haters are leaving. We don’t need any RINOs any more,” Volusia County Republican Chairman Tony Ledbetter said, referring to the derisive acronym for Republicans In Name Only.
The 72-year-old former tea party activist lamented that about 25 percent of Florida’s 67 county parties have yet to be taken over by Trump lovers: “There are still Republicans who would really want to go back to what the party was. They want the Bushes back, they want Romney back, they want Rubio in charge ... They’re establishment people who still haven’t gotten over Trump winning.”
Jim Waurishuk, the party chairman in Hillsborough County, said the GOP makeover was driven by frustration with Republicans in Washington drifting toward leftist policies.
“Whether the Republican Party is morphing into the party of Trump or whether it’s becoming a new party in itself remains to be seen, but the old way of doing things is over,” said Waurishuk, an early Trump supporter. “I see it as a new brand of conservative patriotism,”
Waurishuk’s predecessor, former state Rep. Deborah Tamargo, had been a vocal Trump booster, even immediately after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced near the end of the 2016 election. Many of her colleagues in the party, however, saw her as more of a Jeb Bush/Marco Rubio Republican, which helped lead to her ouster in January.
Beware the Trump backlash
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney knows the consequences of insufficient fealty to Trump. After the videotape surfaced in October 2016 of Trump boasting to “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush that he forced uninvited kisses on women and would “grab them by the -----,” the Okeechobee Republican withdrew his endorsement of Trump.
“As the father of three young sons, I don’t want my boys growing up in a world where the president of the United States is allowed to speak or treat women the way Donald Trump has,” Rooney said then.
His voters never forgot it.
“I kind of lost my base in my district because of that ... A lot of the people who used to wear my T-shirts and go door-to-door for me now see me as an establishment RINO,” said Rooney. Even “A” ratings from Florida Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce could not compensate for his criticism of Trump.
“Ideology almost doesn’t matter anymore. It’s about unconditional loyalty to the president ... It’s literally like he cannot do anything wrong.”
In the gubernatorial primary, DeSantis has attacked Putnam for having described Trump’s comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape as “vile.”
Dawson Jackson last January was elected chairman of Florida Teenage Republicans, a group that helps elect Republicans and spread conservatism to young people. After another officer in the group posted on social media a meme about Michelle Obama having had a sex change, Dawson sought to have him expelled for damaging the image of the group and conservatism.
After angry blowback from other teens and parents, Jackson resigned.
“It’s the way that people conduct themselves, It’s not the same as it used to be,” said Jackson, 16. “People say, ‘political correctness,’ but at some point there’s got to be be a line between decency and political correctness.”
The Hillsborough Republican Party drew national attention earlier this month for pinning at the top of its official Facebook page a link to a fringe site that promotes assorted conspiracy theories such as “deep state” bureaucrats trying to shoot down Trump on Air Force One and Pizzagate, which asserted that top Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, operated a pedophilia ring in a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor.
County Chairman Waurishuk dismissed the link as harmless and blasted the Tampa Bay Times for “petty nonsense and foolishness” in reporting about it in an effort to help the “radical left.”
A disaffected GOP rank and file
How did Republican politics in Florida come to this?
Key tipping points cited in interviews with dozens of Florida Republicans statewide include George H.W. Bush’s breaking his “no new taxes” pledge, George W. Bush’s Medicare expansion and wars, and the exploding deficits fueled by virtually all Republicans in Washington. Disgust with party elites created the tea party movement, which in turn led to Trump.
In Florida, Rick Scott was the first major candidate to turn fear of illegal immigration into a deadly campaign weapon. The issue only occasionally bubbled up in Florida until Scott, the political newcomer, used it to bludgeon Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum as weak on illegal immigration in their 2010 primary.
On top of that, social media and ever-more rigid and angry partisanship coarsened the tone and language of politicians on both sides of the aisle.
“A lot of Republicans have been disappointed over the years with people who campaign one way and then govern a different way. The president campaigned on some big ideas — zero tolerance for illegal immigration but advocating for better legal immigration — and he went into office and hasn’t backed down. That’s why he’s so popular with Republicans,” said Florida Republican Chairman Blaise Ingoglia.
“One of the problems with the Republican Party before was we didn’t embrace the tea party movement. A lot of establishment Republicans and consultants brushed them aside and didn’t bring them into the fold to make the party stronger,” he said.
J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a lobbyist and legendary Republican strategist who played a key role in electing Republican governors Bush and Bob Martinez, sees the Make America Great Again phenomenon as far more insidious, with “the whiff of violence” and racist overtones.
“Fundamentally, MAGA is reactionary, and it’s anti-intellectual and paranoid,” Stipanovich said. “Trump is all about fear of the future. It’s a manifestation of fear and anxiety by a declining ethnic majority, and Trump feeds on that with his dog whistles about NBA players or kneeling football players.”
He knows that many of his longtime Republican friends disagree.
“I could make a long list of people who have lost their mind,” he said.
Brad Herold, former executive director of the state party, was born just before George H.W. Bush became president. At 31, the presidents he was most familiar with are George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Then came Trump.
“Republicans like me have never had the experience of a president where everything is going so well,” Herold said. “The economy is doing great, we’re not fighting wars, we’re getting great Supreme Court justices.”
Old guard Florida Republicans hold their noses on some of Trump’s policies and behavior and celebrate others.
“I’m extremely uncomfortable with the rhetoric and the style, but I can’t complain with the vast majority of the substance,” said Orlando attorney John Stemberger, among Florida’s most prominent social conservatives. “To me, it’s all about the courts.”
That widely-held view, the courts justify the means, is too much for Cardenas.
“Having a Supreme Court nominee that we agree with is not enough to overcome the constant lying and deceit,” he said. “The president of the United States should be held to a higher standard. Lacking a moral compass and holding the highest office in the land is just not compatible.”
When Trump takes the stage at the fairgrounds, old guard, establishment Republicans like Cardenas will be few and far between. They are neither comfortable nor welcome in the Florida Party of Trump.