TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump inserted himself into the middle of the Florida governor’s race by picking sides in the Republican primary, giving a boost to U.S. Rep. DeSantis and handing Democrats a strategy against him in November if he wins Tuesday’s primary.
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine barely mentioned the president while campaigning until a few weeks ago. Now he is widely airing a television ad that juxtaposes boxing scenes and sounds with images of Trump and DeSantis, who earlier in the month rallied with the president in Tampa.
While stopping at an early voting site six days before the election, it took less than 30 seconds for Levine to mention Trump “and his little mini-me, radical Ron DeSantis.” A reporter pointed out that Levine wasn’t talking about Trump very much until recently.
“The Donald got more involved in the campaign and the Donald got more involved in Florida,” Levine said. “We realize that the Democratic nominee for governor is going to be fighting against the White House and I’m the person that can fight against the White House.”
Republican Gov. Rick Scott can’t run for re-election because of term limits, and is instead challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Trump has been handing out endorsements to give his preferred Republicans a boost during this midterm election season. But he’s also giving Democrats a strong line of attack. In Georgia, Michigan, and Ohio races, Trump’s intervention has quickly made him the focus on the debate. There’s no better window into that like Florida’s governor’s race.
Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis helped erase the early lead Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam held in Florida’s GOP primary.
DeSantis has been running almost entirely on being Trump’s pick, with a commercial featuring his baby in a “Make America Great Again” onesie. In the 30 second spot, his toddler stacks toy bricks as DeSantis exclaims, “Build the wall!” DeSantis also prominently mentions the president on campaign stops.
While DeSantis has been an almost nightly face on Fox News, he said recently the Trump endorsement has boosted his name recognition in a state with 21 million residents.
“It’s a monstrously big state with all these different media markets,” DeSantis. “It’s hard to get known.”
Trump first tweeted his support for DeSantis in December, a month before he actually got in the race.
“That first tweet, all of a sudden you get on people’s radar screens and only he can really do that because of the reach that he has,” DeSantis said.
Putnam has struggled to get out an I-like-Trump-too message. Recently he’s been showing an ad featuring Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was an early Trump supporter in the 2016 election. In it, she says, “I fought hard to elect President Trump, and I’m supporting Adam Putnam for governor. Adam will stand with President Trump.”
Being anti-Trump isn’t new in the Democratic primary — U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham’s first online ad was solely about her criticisms of Trump, in which she says, “Donald Trump is an embarrassment.”
“For me it’s more about what has been created with Trump’s candidacy and then his win. It’s ugly, divisive and chaotic,” Graham said in a recent interview. “We are far better supporting and caring about each other even with differences ... That’s the example we want to set for young people.”
How much being anti-Trump is going to play out in the Democratic primary is questionable.
“Any Democrat is going to be anti-Trump anyway. It’s a given, so I don’t think they need to waste their time being against Trump. Just tell us what you’re going to do for us,” said Marjorie Taylor, a 60-year-old real estate broker from St. Augustine and an undecided Democrat as voters were already being cast in the race. “How are we going to make our schools safer? How are we going to change our gun laws? What are we going to do about immigration? Those things are important and not just Trump. I’m tired of hearing about Trump.”
That hasn’t stopped billionaire Jeff Greene from riding around the state on a bus emblazoned with the words “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.” He parked it outside the Trump/DeSantis rally and he’s made Trump part of his massive air war in the primary, including attacks on Levine for previously praising Trump. Levine has returned those attacks with clips showing Greene calling Trump a “great guy.”
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has also recently become more vocal about Trump, with his campaign saying he has “stood up to Trump louder” than any other candidate. He’s also pointing out that he’s the only candidate calling for Trump’s impeachment, ignoring the fact that as governor he wouldn’t have a role in a presidential impeachment.
Orlando-area businessman Chris King has been among the quieter Democrats when it comes to Trump, but he hasn’t passed on the opportunity to criticize the president at times, including calling him “dishonest and bigoted” after the last State of the Union speech.