With varying degrees of enthusiasm at times overshadowed by resignation, Florida Republican leaders are girding themselves for a must-win battle this fall as they work to coalesce support for their party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
At a quarterly meeting of the Republican Party of Florida in Tampa, numerous county GOP officials Friday offered the same response when asked if they are supporting Trump, a part-time Palm Beach County resident who’s all but closed the deal to face off against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in November.
“I am now,” said Clint Pate, chairman of the Jackson County GOP who’s also a county commissioner, mimicking the responses of two other county chairs.
“I think we all are, aren’t we?” Sarasota County state committeeman Christian Ziegler said.
As they held the final quarterly meeting before July’s national GOP convention in Cleveland, state party officials were focused on pumping up county leaders in the hopes of delivering Florida’s 29 electoral votes — which President Barack Obama racked up in the “blue” column during the past two elections — to Trump.
The contentious GOP primary battle, which included the defeats of two Florida favorite sons, makes the typical post-primary party unification in 2016 a tougher task than in previous years.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio abandoned the race after failing to gain traction in the once-crowded GOP field.
“Whenever you have a heated primary, the party has to come and gel around the nominee, regardless. I will concede that this has been a little bit more of a heated primary, so it may take a little bit longer than in years past, but we will come together,” state Republican Chairman Blaise Ingoglia told The News Service of Florida during an interview Friday afternoon.
For many at the meeting, Trump’s biggest asset is his opponent.
“There are three very big reasons why people are going to unify behind Donald Trump: Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Hillary Clinton,” Ingoglia said.
While lining up behind Trump may be a no-brainer for many of the GOP faithful, the task is more complicated for those focused on drawing in Hispanic voters, a critical portion of Florida’s electorate that was instrumental in boosting Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012.
“(Trump) is our presumptive nominee, and I’m a delegate, and I will go to the convention and I will vote for the nominee,” Margie Nelson, a convention delegate from Hendry County who serves on the state party’s Minority Engagement Committee, told reporters after her committee’s strategy session Friday.
For many Hispanic Republicans like Nelson, who was born in Indiana and whose ancestors are Mexican, Trump — who has campaigned on building a wall along the Mexican border and who characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists” — himself is the biggest challenge in recruiting Latino voters.
“It’s very hurtful … putting us all into a certain group, into a certain class, that we’re all criminals, we’re all druggies, rapists,” Nelson, a retired law enforcement worker who lives in LaBelle, said. “I know Mexico, and I know where the people come from and where they live. They come here for a better opportunity. They come here for jobs, because they have nothing.”
Nelson acknowledged that “it’s going to be very hard” to persuade Hispanics in her community to throw their support behind the GOP.
“I can’t go back and take his words and translate them into something else. All I can say is, with Donald Trump as our presumptive nominee, that, as a party, we will work together,” she said. “We have to move forward. We have to be positive about this. The American people have voted, and we have to go with that. That’s what the Republican Party is about.”
While Trump’s message may not resonate with Hispanic voters, its substance echoes Republican values, Palm Beach County Chairman Michael Barnett, who chairs the minority outreach committee, said.
“We’re all very concerned about border safety, people coming across, threatening our national security. That’s what Donald Trump has been saying all along, maybe in a way that some people find uncomfortable, and maybe that’s been the problem the whole time, his tone,” Barnett said. “He’s outspoken and doesn’t apologize, doesn’t pull any punches. That’s what a lot of people have a big problem with.”
Barnett said he is “less and less concerned” about party unity after a reported detente between Trump and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who met on Thursday.
“I thought we would be seeing more progress, but at least Speaker Ryan says that the foundation was laid for unity. I hope to see that unity sooner rather than later,” Barnett, who is black, told reporters Friday afternoon.
But with two months to go before the GOP convention in Cleveland, Barnett said, “I don’t think we’re going to have anything to worry about.”
While relations between Trump and Ryan may have thawed, Bush — who dropped out of the GOP primary in February and a month later threw his support behind U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who later abandoned pursuit of the nomination — said he would not back Trump or Clinton for president.
Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, has also said he would not support Trump. Both men drew criticism from party-line Republicans at Friday’s meeting.
“I’m very disappointed in him. He almost sounds like a child who’s pouting,” said Trudi Super, a state committeewoman from DeSoto County.
Super, who said she and her husband were “major, major Bush supporters,” said she is committed to getting Trump elected in November.
“He would not have been my first choice. I’ve agonized over this,” Super said.