Trump's comments spark panic, outrage with Florida Republicans

Political leaders express "outrage," but few say they will withdraw support.
Published October 8 2016
Updated October 9 2016

If the pressure on Republicans over supporting Donald Trump was already painful, it became agonizing this weekend following revelations of his lewd comments in 2005 about groping and seducing women.

On Saturday, Florida's statewide and local GOP candidates and party leaders used words like "disgust," "shock" and "outrage," often speaking through spokesmen, emails or tweets. Still, few said they were withdrawing support.

Democrats argued that this time, it wasn't enough for Republicans to reject Trump's comments without rejecting Trump. They pounced and made it clear they intend to keep up pressure until Election Day.

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen urged Trump on Saturday to withdraw as her party's presidential nominee, joining a growing number of GOP members of Congress asking for his resignation.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, retracted his support for Trump on Saturday, saying he won't vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio stood fast in backing Trump, even while condemning Trump's comments on Twitter as "vulgar, egregious & impossible to justify."

That led the state Democratic Party to accuse Rubio of "unconscionable cowardice."

"If Sen. Rubio cannot withdraw his endorsement after this latest sickening news, then he should withdraw from the race," said his opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

A bright spot for Florida Republicans, if there was one, was media coverage of Hurricane Matthew. The storm led local newscasts Friday night and pushed the Trump story to the bottom of front pages Saturday — and gave some Republicans a convenient escape hatch.

Gov. Rick Scott, head of a super PAC that backs Trump, called the 11-year-old comments "pretty disgusting" and "absolutely wrong."

But when asked whether he still supports Trump, Scott demurred, saying he was focused on the hurricane.

Another possible bright spot is that many Trump backers simply don't care.

"The people I've been talking to today, it hasn't bothered them because of how long ago it was," said state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, campaigning Saturday as she faces a re-election challenge from Democrat Jennifer Webb. "Most of the people I talked to were males, though."

Trump's most prominent Florida supporter besides Scott has been Attorney General Pam Bondi. But Bondi, who has built her career on opposing sex trafficking and sexual violence, didn't respond to repeated calls and text messages on Saturday.

Republicans who face tough challenges from Democrats were the ones most likely to react.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, an underdog in his re-election battle against Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, has said for months he doesn't support Trump without ever saying he'd actually oppose him.

"A man who brags about sexual assault isn't qualified to be president of the United States," Jolly said through a spokeswoman Saturday. He later told the Times/Herald, "I'm not voting for him."

Further down the ballot, state Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, is one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents because of his swing district.

Two weeks ago, Harrison told a candidates forum he couldn't imagine not supporting the nominee of his party.

But on Saturday, he said, he's "starting to wonder if this is really the standard-bearer we want. I'm a loyal Republican, but that only goes so far. The jury's out."

Republicans in safer districts were less likely to back away from Trump.

State Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, on Saturday said the story "hasn't changed my enthusiasm about trying to get him elected."

"There's not a person on Earth who hasn't said something in private that they would regret if it was made public," Raulerson said.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Steve Bousquet, Jeremy Wallace, Times Washington Bureau chief Alex Leary, and Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact William March at [email protected]

       
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