The president is mounting an 11th-hour effort to head off high-profile losses for governor and Senate in his adopted home state.
The White House is planning a political rescue mission in Florida, fearing a wipeout in a key swing state next month that could damage President Donald Trump’s reelection hopes.
Trump is expected to visit the state at least twice, according to two people familiar with the plans. Visits from several Cabinet members are likely, as well. Presidential text messages are being sent to Floridians who still haven’t cast their absentee ballots. And discussions are underway about blanketing the state with robocalls from Trump.
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway were in the state in support of gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis and Senate candidate Rick Scott, both of whom are close to Trump. Later in the day, the president raised money for Republican House candidate Ross Spano, who’s facing an unexpectedly tough challenge in what’s been a reliably red district.
Behind the scenes, Trump aides have been in contact with top Florida Republicans on a near daily basis, and people close to the president concede that they are worried.
“It is both my hope and my expectation that the president will be in Florida so much between now and the election that Floridians will be hearing ‘Hail to the Chief’ in their dreams,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump ally who’s been in touch with the president.
The burst of political activity underscores the stakes in the state. Florida, perhaps more than any other state, is home to a bevy of competitive races — with hard-fought contests for governor, Senate and a handful of House seats. Recent surveys have shown DeSantis and Scott trailing their Democratic rivals, setting off Republican alarms.
Aides to DeSantis and Scott insist they’re ahead and point out that early vote numbers are favorable. But they concede the races are close. On Tuesday, Blaise Hazelwood, the top strategist for a pro-Scott super PAC, sent a memo to donors, warning them that the contest was tight and pleading with them for additional financial help.
“It will most likely be a quintessential ‘Rick Scott win,’” Hazelwood wrote, “a nail biter until the very end.”
It’s the governor’s race that most concerns the White House. Governors traditionally play a key role in raising money, hiring staff and marshaling resources ahead of presidential elections. So aides fear that a loss could undermine their efforts to capture the state’s all-important 29 electoral votes in 2020.
A victory by Democrat Andrew Gillum, on the other hand, could buoy Trump’s general election opponent. Gillum, an African-American mayor of Tallahassee, has excited liberals across the state — and presumably, he would work to gin up support for the eventual Democratic nominee.
“A Gov. Gillum would be a significant obstacle for a Trump presidential campaign in Florida, and a Gov. DeSantis would be a significant asset,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican lobbyist in the state.
“If they think Florida’s important, which I’m certain they do,” Stipanovich said of the administration, “they should be quite worried.”
The optics of losing two high-profile races in Trump’s adopted state also concern White House aides. Trump has staked an extraordinary amount of political capital on DeSantis, intervening in the GOP primary to give him his strong endorsement. A DeSantis loss would inevitably be perceived as a repudiation of the president, some Republicans say.
As they orchestrate the 11th-hour presidential push, senior Republicans are privately griping about the Florida Republican Party. Once the force behind a powerful get-out-the-vote machine, the state party has been in decline in recent years, struggling especially in its efforts to raise money.
The party this year is leaning heavily on the Trump-backed Republican National Committee, which has mounted aggressive program to recruit and train a stable of staff and volunteers. A committee official said it had about 100 staffers in Florida, describing it as a “presidential election level” effort.
The RNC has launched an effort ahead of the election to turn out voters in the Panhandle, a conservative area that was ravaged by Hurricane Michael. Party officials are concerned that a substantial number of GOP voters were displaced by the storm, depressing turnout.
Trump’s involvement is apparent in other ways. Last month, DeSantis orchestrated a shakeup of his campaign and named Susie Wiles, a veteran lobbyist who ran Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state, as his chairwoman. DeSantis also recently hired Mike Shields, a longtime Republican strategist who is close to Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.
Trump’s pre-election visits to the state are being carefully planned to mobilize the Republican base. The president is holding a rally on Oct. 31 in Fort Myers, one of the reddest parts of the state and an area that DeSantis is counting on to come out big for him.
“Florida is the most important purple state in the country. The president is a lot more popular than Democrats realize,” said Brian Ballard, a longtime lobbyist in the state who is close to the president. “Motivating his voters is going to be the difference between winning and losing in Florida.”
DeSantis, a 40-year-old former congressman, is running as a staunch Trump ally. During the primary, he aired TV ads featuring his infant child wearing a MAGA outfit.
But a rift emerged last month after DeSantis distanced himself from Trump’s assertion that Democrats had conspired to inflate the Hurricane Maria death toll. The president, who views DeSantis as indebted to him for his primary win, privately railed to close associates that DeSantis was disloyal.
Tensions have eased since then, people close to both men say. The president called DeSantis before a nationally televised debate on Sunday evening.
Scott’s relationship with the president has been more complex. The Florida governor, who chaired a pro-Trump super PAC in 2016, has long allied himself with the president. But Scott has kept his distance, at times, during his race this year. He’s attended official government events with the president but skipped boisterous Trump rallies, such as one he held in Tampa in July.
The governor has been noncommittal about whether he’ll attend next week’s rally.
“The governor is focused on hurricane recovery,” a Scott spokesman said Thursday, “and we will keep everyone updated on any changes to the campaign schedule.”