Florida Politics

Think it’s just Democrats in town this week? Republicans launch debate counter-events

As Democrats converge on Miami this week for the first of the party’s 2020 presidential debates, the Republican Party is trying to counter their efforts to unseat President Donald Trump by rolling out a counter-message intended to hammer the presidential hopefuls.

Many prominent Republicans, chief among them Vice President Mike Pence, are expected to arrive in Miami this week to host fundraisers, launch the campaign’s national Latino coalition and stage rallies outside the debate venue. It’s an early reminder made nearly immutable by past elections: Florida may well decide the 2020 election by a thread.

Party officials intend to use the events this week to also tout low unemployment and the economy, as well as an aggressive stance against Cuba’s government and Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro, to court Miami’s exile communities.

The day before the debates, Pence is traveling to Miami to launch a “Latinos for Trump” coalition with Lieutenant Gov. Jeanette Núñez, who is being named a national co-chair for the effort. The Federated Republican Women of North Dade group is staging a two-day “Rally for Americans Opposing the Wave of Socialism in the 2020 Presidential Campaign” outside the Arsht Center while the debates take place.

Nelson Diaz, chair of the Miami-Dade Republicans, said the events are also expected to include a small fundraiser Wednesday night with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who has been promoting a book about his time working for Trump. Other Trump campaign officials, including campaign manager Brad Parscale, are also expected to appear in South Florida this week.

Trump has made no secret of his belief victory charts through Florida. He held his re-election announcement rally last week in Orlando, which sits along the state’s mercurial and politically decisive I-4 corridor, and all but asked the 20,000 attendees there to deliver a home-state advantage.

“I’m thrilled to be back in my second home,” he told them, citing his many stays at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach before he corrected himself.

“In many ways I think I could say it’s my first home,” he revised. “It’s the great state of Florida.”

Florida broke decisively for Trump in 2016, helping secure his win over Hillary Clinton. And even though the 2018 midterms signaled a wave of Democratic victories in other states, Republicans in some Florida races even improved on their 2016 margins. They held the governor’s mansion in a nationally watched race and flipped a U.S. Senate seat with former Gov. Rick Scott’s candidacy.

Democrats are trying to play defense against the Trump campaign’s courting of Hispanic and Latino voters, by pointing to Trump’s tax woes, his healthcare agenda and a host of immigration policies including the passage of a state ban on so-called “sanctuary cities” this year.

But they are still recovering from a weak effort in the 2018 midterms that ended in a more-lackluster-than-expected Hispanic turnout, with just 53% of the vote.

In Democratic-majority Miami-Dade, at least, an outright win for Trump among Hispanics, the county’s largest demographic group, is unlikely. Though Hispanic communities can vary widely in political alignment, they tend to lean blue. But Diaz said Republicans are more concerned with sapping Democrats’ advantage than wining a majority.

“You don’t need to win counties — it’s a race to win votes,” he added. “Our goal is to win the most votes, as many votes as we possibly can... If it wasn’t for Cuban-American votes DeSantis might not have won.”

State Sen. Joe Gruters, who chairs the Republican Party of Florida and was co-chair of Trump’s campaign in the state in 2016, added that Trump now has the benefit of the Republican party machine fully united behind him as the standard bearer, while Democrats have a protracted primary winnowing ahead.

“The Democrats are divided — they have 23 different candidates in the race,” he said. “On the Republican side, we’re united behind the president and the successes he’s been able to accomplish despite the headwinds against him…We’re putting together the ground forces to show we’ll be able to compete, building on the building blocks we’ve already created.”

Nor does it hurt that Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, owes part of his primary win to Trump’s early and enthusiastic support. Gruters said the party is “Trump-centric and DeSantis-centric,” and argued that DeSantis — who is said to have his own presidential ambitions one day — will help deliver the state in November 2020.

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