ESTERO, Fla. ― President Donald Trump brought his now-familiar mix of fearmongering and falsehoods to southwest Florida on Wednesday in a final-days push to put Ron DeSantis in the governor’s mansion and current Gov. Rick Scott in the U.S. Senate.
“Ron is running against a radical socialist who wants to turn Florida into Venezuela,” Trump told a crowd of about 8,000 packed into a hockey arena on the outskirts of Fort Myers. “Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum would be a disaster. The people of Florida are going to reject socialism and vote for Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott.”
Scott is running to unseat Nelson, the Democrat seeking his fourth Senate term. And DeSantis, who resigned his Jacksonville area congressional seat this summer, is facing Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, in the governor’s race.
Each spoke for a few minutes after an introduction from Trump, praising the president and repeating his charges that their Democratic opponents would be dangerous for Florida.
“Andrew Gillum wants to abolish ICE,” DeSantis said to loud jeers. “He wants open borders.”
Wednesday’s rally was the kickoff to a total of 11 in the final six days of campaigning before next week’s midterm elections. Trump will return to Florida on Saturday night, to Pensacola, which, like Fort Myers, is solidly Republican turf.
Trump’s prediction of DeSantis’ and Scott’s victories notwithstanding, one longtime Republican consultant believes Trump’s political team’s decision to devote two visits to Florida in the final week speaks volumes.
“Donald Trump is coming to Florida twice in the last six days,” said Mac Stipanovich, a chief of staff to one former GOP governor and campaign manager for two. “He’s not doing that because it’s in the bag.”
Most public opinion polls have shown Gillum with a small but consistent lead since the start of the general election campaign in late August. Stipanovich attributes Gillum’s edge to his ability to offer a positive vision for Florida that contrasts with Trump and DeSantis’ tactic of warning of all the ills that will befall the state should Gillum win.
“Their organizing principle is fear. When fear is what you have to offer, you’re basically on the defensive. You’re in a crouch,” Stipanovich said.
DeSantis was largely unknown outside the congressional district he represented until Trump endorsed him on Twitter before he even officially announced his candidacy for governor. He won almost entirely because of Trump’s support and has been hoping for as much direct help from Trump as possible during the general election.
But Scott had made sure to keep some distance from Trump all year. He avoided attending Trump’s rally for DeSantis in July and had planned to skip this one, as well, but eventually altered his plans to attend.
Scott was thought to have a strong chance of unseating Nelson until this summer. That’s when coastal areas near Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico and Stuart on the Atlantic Ocean were hit by toxic blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee. Scott has been criticized for favoring business development over Florida’s fragile environment, and many blamed the algae bloom on environmental neglect.
That bloom then appeared to feed an ongoing red tide outbreak on Florida’s west coast, possibly exacerbating it but certainly giving Democrats an attack line. Scott faced protests late this summer at campaign stops in Fort Myers and Venice – both Republican strongholds. He largely stopped coastal campaign visits as the red tide spread up Florida’s East Coast, and then he stopped campaigning altogether after Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle last month.
As has become routine in his recent campaign speeches, Trump delivered a large number of falsehoods about his record and that of Democrats in his remarks Wednesday.
Among them: That he had already started building a border wall with nearly $5 billion in funding thus far; that he had been able to push through a law giving veterans the ability to see private doctors; and that the formal name of the Democratic Party is the “Democrat” party.
In reality, Congress has not provided even a single dollar for construction of the “Great Wall” Trump promised to build during his campaign. The veterans “choice” law was passed in 2014, under President Barack Obama. And the correct name of the Democratic Party is, in fact, the Democratic Party.
Trump’s next rally is set for Thursday night in Columbia, Missouri.