In Florida, many Republicans are calculating the cost of supporting Donald Trump

Most of the state's elected leaders remain loyal to Jeb Bush or connected to Marco Rubio.
Published February 24 2016
Updated February 24 2016

Dozens of former Jeb Bush supporters in Florida this week started throwing their support to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. That's no surprise given Rubio's countless political relationships across Florida.

The truly remarkable number concerning Florida's critically important presidential primary in three weeks is this: Two.

That's how many elected Republican leaders in Tallahassee have publicly endorsed Donald Trump, their party's likely presidential nominee. The real estate magnate has been leading overwhelmingly in almost every poll of Florida Republicans since July, but support by Republicans in elective office is nearly invisible.

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The shunning of Trump by the state's Republican establishment reflects not just loyalty and personal ties to fellow Florida politicians Bush and Rubio, but also the awkward reality that much of the GOP leadership in Florida and across the country is out of step with fed-up rank and file Republican voters.

"We are the establishment and embody everything that is wrong with the process. Inherently we fear the unknown," one of the Legislature's two Trump backers, state Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne Beach, said of colleagues reluctant to embrace the frontrunner promising to shake up the establishment. "Mr. Trump is an honest, straight-speaking, results-oriented individual. These traits, while valued by the electorate, are foreign to us."

The other Trump supporter is state Rep. Larry Ahern of Seminole.

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The passion and enthusiasm for Trump by so many Republican voters potentially poses a dilemma for ambitious Republicans. In some cases, these officials don't want to turn off the energetic anti-establishment wing of the party by shunning Trump. In other cases, they have told the Trump campaign they don't want to cross Rubio, whom they see as a strong contender for governor in 2018, after he drops from the presidential race.

Trump's anti-establishment appeal would not be helped by a slew of endorsements from the party establishment, and he told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month that the only endorsements from prominent Republicans he really appreciated were from Sarah Palin, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

"I just don't care about the endorsements," Trump said. "I don't waste my time with that."

Gov. Rick Scott, a former outsider who ran against the Florida GOP establishment in 2010, has heaped praise on Trump this year but came just short of endorsing him. Others considering, or at least not yet ruling out, Trump endorsements include Attorney General Pam Bondi (her mother attended Trump's recent rally in Tampa) and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, another likely candidate for governor, and U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Pinellas County, who is running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

"It would be very safe to just fall in line and get behind Marco Rubio, But we have to recognize what we are seeing in the polls is real. The voters are speaking, and Trump is resonating, " said Jolly, R-Indian Shores.

In December, after Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, Jolly denounced his "brutal, bullying bigotry" and called on him to withdraw from the race. Weeks later, Jolly predicted to the Times that if Trump became the nominee Jolly would not make it to the Senate because Trump would be crushed in the general election.

Since then, Jolly said, he has seen Trump's tone soften. He applauds Trump's calls to shake up Washington's political establishment and they have similar priorities for veterans care and national security, but he continues to have concerns about his demeanor. At the same time, though, Jolly has concerns about Rubio's record of regularly missing votes and hearings as a senator.

"If it's still a three-person race, I don't see how Trump loses Florida," said Jolly, who had been an enthusiastic supporter of Bush.

Bush and Trump had a particularly contentious relationship, which makes it harder for some of the former governor's supporters to consider supporting Trump.

"I think it's going to be very difficult for Donald Trump — especially the way he went after Jeb — for me to endorse him," said Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who is uncommitted since Bush suspended his campaign.

Rep. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, moved to Rubio like most of Bush's Florida supporters.

"I'm a little bit confused about him as to who he's been in the past 30 years and who he's been in the past two years, and I'm trying to match those two things up," he said. "I'm completely perplexed by the whole Trump phenomenon, to be honest with you."

Tony DiMatteo, a former Pinellas Republican Party chairman supporting Trump, doubts the antagonism to Trump will last past the primary among Florida party leaders.

"Their views and stances on different issues are, let us say, sculpted by their donor base," DiMatteo said. "They're going to come around. When Trump wins the nomination, they're going to going to hold their nose and they're going to support him."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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