The president is busy. A fly-by to Pittsburgh, using Ivanka and Jared as human shields, to lay stones at makeshift crosses for those killed at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday. A tent city just short of the U.S. border—with more troops than those fighting ISIS in Syria, to keep out the so-called caravan with its “infestation” of leprosy and smallpox. A binge campaign in as many red places as possible to keep up the seething resentment of the base toward all those Others sufficient to get them out to vote.
Which brought Trump on Wednesday to Florida, ground zero in our politics since the day Elian Gonzalez washed up on the shores of the swing state and tipped it Republican in the contested 2000 election George W. Bush won. It’s rich pickings, with both a Senate seat and governorship up for grabs as Trump goes trick-or-treating for votes for Senate candidate and current Gov. Rick Scott and gubernatorial candidate and former Rep. Ron DeSantis.
At the first of two rallies in the Sunshine State this week, Trump blamed the media for using “tragedy to sow anger and division” in Pittsburgh, to the refrain of “CNN Sucks,” and trashed Democrats more than he praised the Republican candidates. Democratic candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Trump said, will take a “wrecking ball” to the economy and “throw open” borders to illegal immigrant gangsters. And yes, he will raise your taxes, as will Scott’s opponent, Sen. Bill Nelson, who’s been in office way too long, will enact House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s radical agenda, and is for “catch and release.” A Trump clone, DeSantis pays homage to the “corrupt” Gillum with a chant of “Lock Him Up.”
When not with Trump, Scott, in his trademark Navy hat over his billiard-ball head, fancies himself at his best during a hurricane and ran a pre-Hurricane Michael ad touting his performance during the prior one, Irma. He left out the nursing home disaster where 20 died and the low-priced clean-up contracts he ripped up in order to pay a much higher price to recovery firms he was connected to.
While Michael was a tragedy, it allowed Scott to lord it over Nelson, who was turned away from emergency management headquarters at one point. Scott clearly won the photo-op war—the state’s chief executive in the eye of a Category 4 storm directing first responders. Scott boxed Nelson out and then called him a “quitter” for not doing more. But even that wasn’t enough for Scott to put Nelson away in a state Trump won.
Earlier this week, Trump reminded people of Scott’s checkered history for integrity by calling Gillum a “stone cold thief” for taking (or his brother taking) tickets to Hamilton from an undercover federal agent.
Gillum is not running against Scott, but Democratic strategists are hoping the more charismatic Gillum, who appeared on Trevor Noah’s Daily Show on Monday, will pull Nelson across the finish line. If corruption becomes a major issue in the state, compare a $1,000 seat to a Broadway musical to a $1.7 billion fraud on Medicare and all who rely on it by Columbia/HCA, the health care company Scott ran. Or Scott’s business history since. Required disclosures in July revealed that Scott’s $73.8 million blind trust was hardly blind and not to be trusted. He had to reveal that many of his other assets, which could benefit from his actions as governor, are hidden in an account controlled by his wife. Scott said he wouldn’t “apologize for having success.” Instead he attacked Nelson for his $15,000 mutual fund investment, which has 3 percent of its investments in Chinese and Russian companies. Who’s the stone-cold thief again?
Mostly Scott is running on his record of bringing jobs to the state, however low-paying, reducing regulations, and on new positions taken to get on the right (or left) side of voters: gun control (an ardent NRA supporter, Scott switched to sign a gun safety bill after Parkland), voting rights (he ceased his earlier voter suppression efforts), the environment (he lifted his prohibition against any mention of “climate change”), pre-existing conditions (he was against coverage, and filed a suit to kill it, before he was for it), and offshore drilling (he got Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to exempt Florida from his new order to allow it—temporarily).
Nelson, an Army veteran who trained to be an astronaut and flew on the Columbia space shuttle, shows none of the derring-do that his résumé suggests. He’s been a centrist workmanlike senator since 2001, tending to his constituents, winning reelection easily. He would be a shoo-in were it not for Trump’s popularity and Scott’s willingness to change his stripes and to spend his own considerable fortune, $55 million of the $67 million spent versus Nelson’s $26 million (none of his own money) in this year’s most expensive race so far.
Trump has struggled to to say something memorable about the non-memorable DeSantis and defaults to calling him a “Harvard-/Yale-educated man,” which is as odd as if Trump preferred steak tartare over a cheeseburger. DeSantis is a mini-Trump who famously put up ads in which he taught his toddler to build a fake wall with her toy blocks and reads his younger son The Art of the Deal at bedtime.
Shades of racism dog DeSantis, as he asked voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum. DeSantis served as the administrator (unwittingly, he said) of a racist Facebook page, and there have been robocalls on DeSantis’ behalf made in an Uncle Remus voice. At the last debate, Gillum said DeSantis might not be a racist, but “racists believe he’s a racist.”
By going to Florida twice in the final days, Trump is admitting it’s not sewn up, and he will have to roil his base by attacking those not in it to win, including “strong, young” male invaders bearing diseases and naturalized American citizens, except for his wife and her parents. If he hasn’t stoked enough division, Trump is closing with the preposterous threat to take away the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship by executive order and denouncing anyone—including House Speaker Paul Ryan—who says he can’t.
On Nov. 6, a Nelson victory over Scott will mean money isn’t always decisive, that one Republican billionaire in office is enough, and that there’s still a place in Washington for a moderate, conscientious tortoise like Nelson.
If the progressive Gillum triumphs over DeSantis, the left wing of the Democratic Party will steal a march on 2020. Out with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, who this week refused to say she wouldn’t run again; and in with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, from Sens. Elizabeth Warren to Cory Booker sympathetic to Medicare for All, higher taxes on the Mar-a-Lago crowd, and a federal minimum wage.
And if Scott or DeSantis win, the willingness of the Republicans to give in to the president’s whims will only deepen. Fine if the president commandeers the Pentagon and bends the once stalwart Gen. Jim Mattis to his will to put a military gloss on his closing argument that a brown menace at the border will overwhelm the country should a blue wave come. No problem that Homeland Security gives credence to Trump’s caravan hoax, if it gets people out to vote. The ever cooperative Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says she has no “intention right now to shoot at people” at the border. Just you wait.
The midterms are a preview of what Trump is capable of. Imagine what he will do when it’s his name on the ballot.