LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Florida Democrats are counting on Republican President Donald Trump to drive voter turnout for their candidates in a critical 2018 election year.
The president was mentioned often Saturday as the Florida Democratic Party held its biennial convention and many said he will be the reason Democrats could break more than two decades of futility when voters choose a new governor, three new Cabinet members and decide whether to keep Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in office.
“People are coming out of the woodwork like never before,” said Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. “We’re seeing people who want to get involved, who want to make a difference, who are tired of what’s going on and what they see.”
Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race in Florida since 1994 and they’ve lost 14 of the last 15 Cabinet races. Nelson is the only Democrat in a statewide seat, and he’s likely to face his toughest opponent since being elected in 2000. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is expected to enter the race at a time when his popularity has never been higher, and he’ll have more money to spend on the race than any another of Nelson’s previous opponents.
While Florida Democrats have had a problem with turnout in non-presidential years — a reason why they’ve had a miserable showing in statewide races — many in the party say that will change in the Trump era.
In a luncheon speech, Nelson said nothing about Scott, but did quote Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s remarks from his very public feud with Trump. He also pointed out how President John Kennedy united the country and he compared it to the divisiveness of Trump.
“Under the leadership of President Kennedy, he showed that we as a nation are at our best when we work together and when we are united. There’s nothing, when we’re united, that we can’t achieve,” Nelson said. “Compare that style of leadership with what we’re seeing in the White House today.”
Nelson was followed by former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who continued the criticism of Trump.
“He doesn’t know anything about policy, he doesn’t know anything about history, he doesn’t know how the government works and he’s too busy golfing or tweeting or insulting people to learn how to be a good president,” Castro said to applause. “We all have a front row seat to gross incompetence and negligence, and maybe even worse than that.”
Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, who is running for the Cabinet position of chief financial officer, predicted that independent voters will swing to Democrats if Trump continues to be unpopular outside his Republican base.
“I’m banking on it,” Ring said. “It’s going to come down to where does the middle lean toward. If they teeter toward our side, that wave’s going to pull us all through.”
And he said no other race will be a bigger test then Nelson versus Scott, who was an early Trump supporter and who has been encourage by the president to run for Senate.
“Rick Scott is Trump’s guy,” Ring said. “Nothing in America will define where Trump stands with the electorate more than that race.”
Chris King, an Orlando-area businessman running for governor, warned that the party has to be more than just anti-Trump.
“The Trump factor is giving us a wind in our sails, no doubt. It’s got more people more interested, aware and paying attention,” King said. “But I don’t think we win if we just rag on Donald Trump and I think that’s a danger for Democrats.”