Trump jets off to New Jersey, but GOP Florida still in ex-president’s thrall

Associated Press – via the Palm Beach Post

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump is at his New Jersey property for the summer and his Mar-a-Lago club is closed until the fall, but Palm Beach County and South Florida remain very much in the Trumpian political limelight.

Just last week, the Trumpettes fan club, including numerous Mar-a-Lago club members, announced it will host another gala for Trump at Mar-a-Lago in mid-February of next year. The group held three major parties at the club dating to 2018, selling out each year and welcoming then-President Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis at the 2020 gala.

“This will be the biggest event we’ve ever held,” said Trumpettes co-founder Toni Holt Kramer, adding that next year’s event will be used to start 2022 midterm election efforts. “We’ve got the hottest weekend with Lincoln’s birthday, the Super Bowl and Valentine’s (Day).

From the other side of the partisan spectrum, a political action committee said last week it was targeting a South Florida GOP congressman with its initial digital advertising spend of the 2022 election cycle.

The group, CHC BOLD PAC, said in a statement it chose to strike at U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Miami and three other Republicans because they “led a misinformation campaign” and spread Trump’s “Big Lie on social media and conservative news media outlets” to cast doubt about last November’s presidential election victory by President Joe Biden.

That ad buy followed one by the anti-Trump Lincoln Project’s commercials in the West Palm Beach television market. The group launched two spots to taunt Trump in his home county.

Together, the groups said the ads seek to hammer the ex-president and his Republican allies on their home turf with the one issue that seemingly binds them together: the baseless claims Trump was defrauded out of an election he lost by popular vote and Electoral College landslides.

Still, whether it’s the Trumpettes planning a Mar-a-Lago bash or a PAC fighting new voter laws, the focus remains on Trump.

More than 100 days into his post-presidency, the talk around Trump is not about memorializing his tumultuous single term in a museum, but about a potential Grover Cleveland-like comeback in 2024. To that end, the former president remains a potent political force in ever-increasingly red Florida.

“I think Trump is staying very effective behind the scenes during the Biden presidency,” said Wesley Borucki, associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University. “I don’t know that there is any other Republican that can maintain that sort of national presence like Donald Trump does.”

And control over state politics, too.

Last week, Trump encouraged — and endorsed — Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson to run for the commissioner of agriculture post next year. That’s on top of numerous other endorsements of candidates in federal and state races in Florida and across the country.

All the while, he has continued to drag the Republican Party farther to the right with his brand of populist politics.

“The former president reshaped the Republican Party into a bit more of a populist party,” said Kevin Wagner, a pollster and chairman of the political science department at Florida Atlantic University. “And former President Trump continues to be one of the more significant, if not the most significant leader, for that movement.”

Wagner and Borucki said there are issues that seem to bolster Trump’s political staying power. One of those is immigration, which returned to headlines because of a border crisis earlier this year, and which was cited as a concern by voters responding to an FAU poll conducted by Wagner.

Another is the economy, where rising gas prices, criticism that Biden’s stimulus payments have stunted employment growth and talk of raising the minimum wage could create “serious headwinds” for the U.S. economy, according to Borucki.

“Those are all inflationary pressures,” he said. “And that’s essentially a tax on the working-class population.”

Don’t forget, Borucki cautions, that Trump got more votes than any other incumbent in United States presidential history. He has a very strong following. And the question is who is around necessarily to pick up the mantle with a strong personality?”

But the chief organizing principle of Trump’s movement, a broad swath of critics, pundits and pollsters have said, is the so-called “Big Lie,” the falsehood that the former president was cheated out of a second term by widespread electoral fraud last fall.

Last week, while still at the former Southern White House, Trump in a news release again baselessly called last year’s vote the “most tainted and corrupt Election in American history.”

That was just after DeSantis started the day in West Palm Beach by signing a voter law live on one of Trump’s go-to programs on conservative media, “Fox & Friends,” after making a speaking appearance at a Trump fan club, Club 45 USA.

The new rules put constraints on mail-in voting and were opposed by Florida elections supervisors. And they contradicted claims by DeSantis’ own assertions that last year’s elections were fraud-free because the state’s systems were “secure.”

Democrats quickly said the backdrop to the bill signing spoke to overt political machinations.

“It’s bringing home the dead mouse to Trump,” said Palm Beach County Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo. “It was clearly paying homage to Donald Trump here in Palm Beach County.”

Rizzo insisted the legislation had nothing to with “substantive” election reforms but rather it was all about “political theater” and the false claims of election fraud.

In fact, election observers and Republican state officials across the country have stood steadfast behind 2020 general election ballot counts, recounts and audits, saying there is no evidence of serious irregularities in any state.

Judges in state and federal courts who heard arguments from Trump and Republican lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, also concluded the evidence was unconvincing when tossing and dismissing scores of lawsuits. The U.S. Supreme Court, with three Trump-nominated justices, refused to even hear several election-related cases brought by Republicans.

In Florida, the only discernible instance of election fraud is alleged to have taken place in Miami-Dade County. There, a former Republican state lawmaker and a Boca Raton resident face criminal charges over a fake candidacy that may have cost a Democratic state senator reelection.

Still, this spring what Republicans called election security legislation and opponents labeled voter suppression tactics have been the GOP’s dominant focus in dozens of state legislatures, including the ones in Florida, Georgia and Arizona.

At Trump’s demand, House Republicans last week removed conservative Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney from her leadership post solely for calling the election fraud claims a “threat” to American democracy.

Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a leading conservative voice, was demoted and replaced by Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a political moderate but a vocal Trump supporter.

Cheney angered Trump and his GOP allies for calling out the baseless election fraud claims and condemning the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters with the intended goal of stopping the peaceful transfer of power.

“We must speak the truth. Our election was not stolen. And America has not failed,” Cheney said on the House floor. “I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”

For his role in prompting and fueling the Jan. 6 violence, Trump was impeached by the U.S. House, marking the first time in American political history that a president had been accused in two separate instances of having committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office.

As such, Trump arrived in Palm Beach on Jan. 20, within the hour of his successor, Biden, taking the oath of president, to conclude his American Carnage administration in ignominy, if not disgrace.

But in four short months at Mar-a-Lago, Trump tenaciously again restored his grip on the Republican Party. In a steady stream of social media posts, top GOP leaders and lawmakers, from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, were shown in photos with Trump.

The Trump faithful leaving the Club 45 USA event earlier this month said they want to see either Trump or DeSantis as the party’s next presidential nominee. And some wouldn’t mind seeing a Trump-DeSantis ticket in 2024.

“I support them both,” said Sara Bernard of Boca Raton.

Yet Wagner cited polling by FAU colleague Monica Escalares suggesting no major mood swings or changes in heart among Florida’s voters. A survey of voters released May 6 by the FAU Business and Economics Polling Initiative found state voters “pretty sharply divided” and “pretty well set in their camps,” Wagner said.

That was reflected in a “tepid” approval rating for Biden in Florida, which the president lost by a significant gap in November. Some 45% of Florida voters approved of his job performance while 43% disapproved.

That is no surprise, Wagner cautioned.

“Biden’s numbers, even during the election, were always a bit weaker in Florida than they were in the national picture,” he said. “That sort of illustrates that Florida leans a little more Republican than the national picture.”

This means, he said, that elections in Florida, including in 2022, are going to be determined by voter enthusiasm. On that front, Wagner said Trump’s Republicans have established a track record of successful turnout — and winning results.

“The winner is going to be the one who successfully turns out their votes, not necessarily the one with the most potential votes,” he said.

And that is where Trump and the GOP have proven successful.

“In Florida, in particular, in the last couple election cycles, former President Trump has been very, very good at turning out high percentages of the more conservative voters,” Wagner said. “I think we have yet to see whether or not a candidate other than former President Trump is capable of doing that to the extent he managed, especially in 2020.”

That’s an answer Borucki at PBAU said he is willing to postpone a book project for.

“My manuscript is due in to the publisher in December of 2022,” Borucki mused of a Trump biography. “I’m just about ready to pull the trigger on an email to my publisher saying should we delay this book until 2024 because he may very well run again and I surely would want to cover his candidacy if he does so.”

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