Hurricane Michael destroyed whole towns in Florida. President Donald Trump led a campaign rally states away during the storm. “We won Florida by a lot,” he told his crowd in Erie, Pennsylvania. “The whole map is like red.”
At his perennial rallies, Trump tends to spend his most cheerful moments reminiscing about the 2016 presidential election, his victory being one of the few unambiguous triumphs in his political career. Trump has only grown darker and more ridiculous since his election. Accordingly, Trump’s has had a higher disapproval rating than approval rating for every month of his presidency but one. In the midwest, Trumpism is flagging and failing the GOP candidates who need it most. Strangely enough, if there’s a single state that still embodies Trump Country, it’s Florida. Trump has transformed the once-mythical “swing state” into his political stronghold, anchored by his Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago. If Trumpism fails in Florida, it will have failed across the board.
In the wake of Hurricane Michael, the Florida panhandle is a disaster zone—and a busy political arena. The state’s major candidates mostly paused their public campaigning to prioritize their endangered constituencies. In the past few days, they’ve gradually and awkwardly resumed the late-stage drama of a pivotal election. Republican Governor Rick Scott is challenging incumbent Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, in a hotly contested race. Vying to replace Scott, Republican Representative Ron DeSantis is battling Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, who stands to become the first black governor of Florida. These are two very different races. Nelson is a low-key, three-term incumbent who hadn’t “mattered” at the national level until Scott challenged him during this cycle, and he’s running against Scott, a wealthy and savvy but nonetheless dreary Republican leader. Meanwhile, Gillum is a young, exciting Democratic challenger who seems destined for national politics, one way or another; he’s running against DeSantis, a race-baiting Fox News darling and conspiracy theorist who serves Trump’s cult of personality.
Trump has taken a keen interest in the two races from start to finish. The president persuaded Scott to challenge Nelson for his Senate seat, and he backed DeSantis in the Republican gubernatorial primary. DeSantis has hired the Trump campaign’s chief Florida strategist, Susie Wiles, to manage his general election campaign against Gillum. In Florida, Trump’s influence is especially pronounced—even as Scott, in particular, struggles to distance himself from the president’s mismanagement of immigration, disaster relief, and international affairs.
It’s too late for Scott and other weary Florida Republicans to mitigate Trump’s prominence in the state’s politics. For the rest of October, Trump is scheduled to lead a series of rallies in key states hosting close Senate races. Last week—two days before his Erie rally—the president visited Orlando to address an international police convention, closed to the public. Previously, Trump would visit the state to lead massive rallies starring himself. He’s stumping for other Republican candidates now. In July, Scott steered clear of Trump’s rally for DeSantis in Tampa; Scott told reporters he wanted to campaign “on [his] own”—apart from the president’s divisive and overbearing presence—in the general election. Trump has embarrassed Scott from afar. He’s routinely denied his own administration’s estimates of the Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico, a provocation that’s become indefensible all over again now that Florida is struggling to recover from Hurricane Michael a year later. Florida Republicans are hoping the president’s fanatical base will turn out in exceptional numbers to put Scott and DeSantis over the top. They’re also hoping Trump will shut up.
There’s reason to believe the Republicans might hold fast to the Senate, at least, despite Trump’s abysmal polling and the Republican Party’s unenviable defensive position. The close races in Tennessee, Texas, and Arizona are widening in favor of the Republican nominees. The states, all together, will determine the fate of Trump’s unified Republican government. But Florida is the odd bellwether at the heart of Trump’s political moment. Florida is Trump Country—a nation rushing ecstatically to the brink of collapse.