June 14, 2019 by David Silverberg
Welcome to Battleground Florida, or, as the Russians would put it: Баттлграунд Флорида.
Florida won’t just be a battleground state in the 2020 election—it will be the battleground state that wins or loses the election.
The Republican Party knows this. The Russians know this. Donald Trump certainly knows this. Indeed, he knows it to such a degree that he’s chosen Florida to announce his re-election run at a rally in Orlando on Tuesday, June 18.
And Democrats? They sorta seem to know it. But can they act on it?
Florida’s importance lies beyond the fact that it provides a presidential candidate with 29 electoral votes, over one-tenth of the total needed to get to the presidency. Its criticality also lies in the fact that in Florida presidential elections have been squeakers in the past, devolving down to hanging chads in 2000 and going to Donald Trump with 49 percent of the vote in 2016.
“We can’t win the White House without winning Florida. Period,” Joe Gruters, chairman of the Florida Republican Party told Politico’s Marc Caputo in early May.
Republicans won the governorship and a Senate seat in a squeaker in 2018 and it’s clear that despite those victories they want no repeat of that near-death experience in 2020. Their discipline and determination since then has been impressive.
- The Trump campaign is treating Florida as its own region, giving it the resources and organization that it will otherwise dedicate to broad regions like the Midwest or Northeast, according to Politico.
- The campaign is organizing early, Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, told the Broward Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale on May 23, according to the Sun Sentinel. It’s going to be “bigger, better and badder” than 2016. For 2020, the Trump campaign intends to have 40 to 60 million telephone and e-mail contacts by Election Day—in contrast to 2016, when it only had 9 million. Attendees at Trump rallies will be asked to provide information for five of their contacts and rewarded with hats or souvenirs when they provide them. The goal is to vastly increase the contacts coming out of rallies, in contrast to 2016 when they only numbered 20,000 to 30,000.
- Gov. Ron DeSantis’ massive pilgrimage to Israel at the end of May was designed to win over crucial Jewish donors and voters who, while losing the voting numbers they’ve wielded in the state in the past nonetheless remain an influential community, especially financially. DeSantis’ pilgrimage also attracted the likes of Sheldon Adelson, the conservative pro-Israel mega-donor based in Las Vegas.
- While the Florida panhandle continues to suffer as a result of last year’s Hurricane Michael, Trump nonetheless went there to hold a rally that was infamous for his encouragement of shooting migrants. Trump’s solicitousness of panhandle voters was particularly cruel and ironic in that individual Republican members of Congress repeatedly held up a $19.1 billion aid package aimed at alleviating panhandle suffering—no doubt at Trump’s behest—in his quest to get border wall funding that was not included in the bill. Trump has learned that sometimes it’s better to let someone else take the heat for unpopular actions. (And it should be noted that Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) voted against it when it came up for a floor vote on June 3.)
- In South and Southwest Florida, after first shortchanging Everglades needs in his initial budget request, Trump acceded to the demands of the Florida delegation and brought his supplemental funding request up to $200 million—which was simply what the federal government was contractually obligated to provide in the first place but which was praised for its generosity to the region.
- The administration’s rhetorically tough stands against Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro and its reversal of President Barack Obama’s overtures to Cuba are designed to win over the state’s Hispanic voters. Republican politicians like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio are making the most of it.
- While getting out their own base, Republicans have actively worked to suppress any non-Republican voters. After passing Amendment 4 to give felons the right to vote, the Florida legislature began putting restrictions on the newly-enfranchised voters, passing House Bill 7089 (this on the presumption that the enfranchised voters would vote liberal, a questionable assumption). As another example close to home, in Bonita Springs, city council members voted to change the date of the city elections from the scheduled March 17 (primary day) to Nov. 3 (general election day), giving themselves another eight months in office beyond their mandated four-year terms because they feared only Democrats would turn out in March.
- And, of course, the money will be pouring into the Florida re-election effort. Last year’s Senate race is estimated to have cost at least $200 million, with winner Rick Scott spending $82 million. That may be nothing compared to what the Trumpist re-election effort may spend in the state in 2020.
The Russian vote
On June 12, President Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopolous that if offered negative information on an opponent or party from a foreign government, he’d listen to it: “It’s not an interference, they have information—I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI—if I thought there was something wrong,” said Trump.
As detailed in Robert Mueller’s report, Russians made a particular effort in Florida in 2016, covertly organizing rallies and attempting to hack into every Florida county’s election operation.
In 2018, Russians verifiably monitored Florida election developments.
Старший брат (Big Brother) is watching
This author has personal experience with Russian monitoring. In the 2018 congressional campaign in the 19th Congressional District I served as communications director for Democrat David Holden. In August, our campaign manager, Chris Raleigh noticed a Russian visitor to the campaign website. Using an application that provided the latitude and longitude of the visitor, Raleigh discovered that the origin of the visit was in Moscow—in the Kremlin.
And not just in the Kremlin—in the Arsenal building in the Kremlin complex, a closed, secure, top secret military facility.
We alerted the FBI, which sent two agents down from Tampa to investigate.
To the best of our ability to determine, the Russians didn’t hack or alter the site or our data. But the incident proved to us that they were monitoring even as local a campaign as ours in a place as obscure as Southwest Florida. One can only imagine what they’re doing—or planning to do—in a race as vital and prominent as the presidential contest and one that hinges on the state of Florida.
To see some local coverage of the incident, see: Congressional candidate says that Russia is monitoring his campaign.
At the same time that the threat of Russian interference rises for 2020, the Trump administration has systematically reduced or diluted American cyber defenses, for example, eliminating the top cybersecurity position in the White House.
Russian meddling, interference, hacking and manipulation around the nation but especially in Florida can be expected to be exponentially higher in 2020 than in 2016, with active encouragement from the president and his supporters. It amounts to a whole other voting bloc in Florida that has to be taken into account by political analysts and experts but one that is covert and unpredictable—and illegal.
The Democratic response
While the president and his supporters have a single focus and purpose, the Democrats are contending with the largest field of presidential candidates they have ever faced.
While on the one hand this is democracy in action, on the other hand, it means that Democrats will not know their nominee until well into next year and they can’t organize and prepare the ground as effectively as the Trumpists.
But even if they knew the nominee, the state of the Florida Democratic Party is not encouraging.
From June 7 to 9, Democrats held their big conclave in Orlando, called Leadership Blue. None of the presidential candidates showed up, some opting to send their spouses, other spouses checking in by video. Their main focus was in Iowa.
But the Florida Democratic Party is plagued by more than just the absence of a single presidential candidate or message. It remains fractured and splintered, full of recrimination for 2018’s defeats, which it has yet to fully and officially analyze, since its official commission on the election hasn’t released its findings.
Even the media largely ignored this gathering, with the hometown Orlando Sentinel not bothering to send a reporter to its own backyard. A week after the conclave the Party itself had yet to issue a press release or statement on the gathering’s conclusions or proceedings.
Still, there are some signs of life:
- The Party has created an Organizing Corps of 90 paid organizers who will be mobilizing communities across the state. The effort is centered on minority and ethnic communities, crucial Democratic blocs.
- The Party is launching a weekly radio show in Spanish in an effort to connect with Hispanic voters, investing $80,000 to reach perhaps 6,000 voters in the Miami area.
- A national super PAC (political action committee) called For Our Future is starting an early effort aimed at seven swing states including Florida (the others are Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin). With a spending target of $80 million to $90 million, the super PAC plans to have 4,000 paid staff turning out “sporadic voters” especially in minority and ethnic communities. Founded six months before the election in 2016 and supported by labor unions and billionaire activist Tom Steyer, the PAC has hired Ashley Walker, who served as President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign chair, to direct its efforts.
- The Party created a Voter Protection Program headed by lawyer Brandon Peters to fight voter suppression and irregularity.
These are laudable efforts but seen against a determined Republican juggernaut, they seem puny and paltry. It’s going to take a lot more effort and money to build a credible Democratic campaign capable of winning the state.
Down to the wire
It’s interesting to contrast two perceptions of the race ahead.
“People ask me, ‘Is Florida still a swing state? Almost not. Pretty soon, this is going to be solid Republican,” boasted Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, to Broward County Republicans. “Florida is becoming Trump country.” Then he decided to be more definitive: “This is Trump country.”
Some of that may be political bragging—after all, Parscale is channeling the most boastful man in America, if not the world. But the intensity of the Trumpist effort in Florida and its focus gives his words a ring of authority—or at least, plausibility.
Democrats are unlikely to really unite until they have their nominee and he or she may not be known before Super Tuesday on March 3. Florida doesn’t hold its primary until two weeks later, on March 17. Given the current contest, that counts as very late in the election cycle.
But even with all the Democratic fragmentation and factionalism, the Florida general election results may be so close that a recount is called, lawyer Brandon Peters told Leadership Blue in Orlando, according to the Associated Press.
Teams of volunteers are being readied to monitor canvassing boards for electoral problems in the event of a recount and Peters hopes to have 15,000 lawyers and volunteers ready to confront any difficulties.
“We’re going to be prepared,” Peters told the gathering of Democratic activists.
Once again Florida is the state that could decide the future of the nation—and this time, whether or not the United States of America remains a constitutional, democratic republic, independent of foreign domination.
Liberty lives in light
© 2019 by David Silverberg