GOP unity for Donald Trump evident at Florida party gathering, but enthusiasm not overwhelming

Transitioning from #NeverTrump to #NeverHillary takes a little time for some.
Published May 14 2016
Updated May 15 2016

TAMPA — As hundreds of Florida Republican activists gathered for state party meetings, pep talks and speeches denouncing Hillary Clinton this weekend, the co-chairman of Donald Trump's Florida campaign held court with reporters.

"It's amazing how everybody's come together and is unified in support of Donald Trump. You can see it here today — guys who I thought would never support Donald Trump are coming up to me, saying, 'We're ready to win, how can we help?,' " Joe Gruters, Sarasota County Republican chairman and vice chairman of the state party, told reporters in the lobby of a DoubleTree hotel. "It's a kumbaya fest here."

Not 10 feet behind him, three longtime party activists sheepishly acknowledged they had little to no enthusiasm for their presumptive Republican nominee. Yes, Suwanee County party chairwoman Sherri Ortega, state committeewomen Gayle Cannon of Columbia County and Betty Ramey of Gilchrist County will vote for Trump — God forbid, Clinton wins the White House — but they doubt they will knock on doors or work phone banks as they typically do for a candidate.

"He said he didn't need my help. ... He said, 'I don't need the conservative vote,' " said Ortega, who will focus on helping elect other Republicans in November. "We had 17 candidates running, and we're nominating the one I liked the least."

Anecdotal evidence and some polls indicate rank-and-file Republicans across the country are starting to coalesce behind Trump after a tumultuous primary season, despite some establishment leaders (notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) continuing to rule out voting for him. A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released last week found just 9 percent of Republicans said they would vote for Clinton over Trump, comparable to the 7 percent of Democrats supporting Trump.

"A lot of the people that I saw in my Facebook feeds that were '#NeverTrump' people, they're now starting to tone down," said Alachua County Republican chairman Stafford Jones. "It's not like they're excited yet about Donald Trump — nobody's excited after their candidate loses a primary — but they're replacing #NeverTrump with #NeverHillary. Healing and coming together is a process, and I see a lot of people working on it. I assume they'll get there."

The state Republican Party's quarterly meeting in Tampa underscored the anxiety many party loyalists have about their all-but-nominee, as officials repeatedly made self-conscious efforts to demonstrate party unity over lingering doubts or antagonism.

At a meeting of state committeemen and committeewomen, leaders posed for photos while donning "Make America Great Again" caps. At a minority engagement committee meeting Friday afternoon, Hills­borough County Republican Chairwoman Deborah Tamargo noted the "perception" Trump is weak among non-white voters, and suggested the diverse committee of roughly a dozen members respond with a resolution expressing support for Trump.

But when Hendry County state committeewoman Margie Nelson, a Mexican-American native of Indiana, said Trump would have to change his positions and occasional "very hurtful" rhetoric about undocumented immigrants to ease the concerns of many Hispanic voters she speaks with, the committee's black chairman gently cut her off.

"I'd like to keep it positive, and not attack our nominee," said Palm Beach County Republican chairman Michael Barnett.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, the only Republican in statewide office to endorse Trump before he overwhelmingly won Florida's March 15 primary, spoke to the group Friday morning, reminding them of the high stakes and importance of uniting behind Trump.

The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia has left open one Supreme Court position, she said, "and you've got to remember, Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg is over 80 years old. Justices (Anthony) Kennedy, (Stephen) Breyer? Late 70s. And I know for a fact that Donald Trump will put a conservative young justice on the bench that will make all of you proud and make our Constitution strong again."

Without Florida's 29 electoral votes, it is virtually impossible for a Republican to win the presidency, and Trump has obstacles in Florida beyond the potential of a fractured party.

Most polls show him especially weak among Hispanic voters who make up about 14 percent of the electorate, for instance, and the once mighty Florida GOP is struggling with its own financial and structural problems. Gov. Rick Scott stopped raising money in early 2015 after leaders dismissed his preferred candidate for party chairman and elected state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Hernando County. The party is relying entirely on the Republican National Committee to fund its field program.

Ingoglia insisted Trump is in a strong position in Florida.

"These are the three reasons the party is going to be unified: Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Hillary Clinton," he said, noting that it always takes some time for a party to unite after a tough primary and this year's race included two homegrown leaders, Bush and Marco Rubio.

Party officials from throughout Florida mingled in the Double­Tree's lobby and sports bar between caucus and committee meetings and mostly downplayed the anti-Trump sentiment in their ranks, noting that it takes more than a couple of weeks for supporters of other candidates to embrace the winner.

It's not just typical primary politics that Republican leaders have to deal with. In Trump they have a presumptive nominee who doesn't even agree with many of the GOP's long-standing positions: He promises not to cut entitlements, he is hostile to free trade deals, he says positive things about Planned Parenthood, he has said he would support raising taxes on the wealthy, he supports opening ties with Cuba and he is receptive to raising the minimum wage.

"Trump is absolutely not a conservative, and if you think he is, you're smoking something. But he's not a liberal either," said Brandon retiree Frank Giorgio, a member of the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee who described himself as "not a right-wing nut" who has long admired Trump's anti-establishment message.

Others are still trying to get used to it.

"He is certainly not a prototypical politician," said Jones, the Alachua party chairman. "As a grass roots activist, everything that I've ever known and learned doesn't apply right now. We as a party are now coloring outside the lines. So yes, Donald Trump is very different from what I'm used to, but I think there is a case to be made that the politics that I'm used to certainly has our country in some kind of a rut, so maybe Donald Trump can figure out a way to get us out."

Contact Adam Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.