In Trump’s GOP, candidates battle to mimic the president best

Republican candidates in Florida — like those across the country — are mirroring Trump’s bombast and emphasizing their fidelity to him.
Published July 11, 2018

Cris Dosev, a Congressional candidate in the Florida panhandle, likes to compare himself to President Donald Trump, telling audiences he's a businessman taking on the political establishment. "Thank you for the endorsement, Mr. Trump," he jokes.

Problem is, Dosev's running in the GOP primary against Rep. Matt Gaetz, who so avidly defends Trump on Fox News that he gets phone calls from the president. "I couldn't possibly crawl up Mr. Trump's rear end any deeper than this guy has," Dosev said.

But the real estate developer and former Marine officer from Pensacola is doing his best to channel Trump, relentlessly trolling his rival on Twitter, calling Gaetz a "Fake Warrior" and insisting to voters he's more in step with the president. Making his second run for office, Dosev has learned from Trump to keep things simple and punchy while playing up an outsider image right down to vows to "drain the swamp."

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"I have to create the stir," Dosev, 56, said in an interview. "You can parallel that to what Trump did. It's a bit refreshing."

Republican candidates in Florida — like those across the country — are mimicking Trump's bombast and emphasizing their fidelity to him, underscoring the president's sky-high popularity among the base and a yearning for fighters against the political system. Bedrock issues like fiscal responsibility and gun rights have become secondary to Trumpism.

The president remains controversial and has polarized the country, but his approval rating among Republicans is near 90 percent nationally. He has remade the GOP.

"How far we have come from when Republicans were sneering and looking their noses down at our nominee," said Gaetz. "Now that the Republican Party is very much Donald Trump's party, you see less focus on ideology and more focus on tribalism, who has the guts to take people on.

"In Donald Trump's America," Gaetz added, "candidates are rewarded when they bring it."

Candidates are filling Twitter feeds with more aggressive rhetoric and dropping #MAGA hashtags like they used to reference Ronald Reagan.

"I used to hate what Trump tweeted," said Terry Power, a political novice who credits Trump for inspiring him to run for office and is challenging Republican state Rep. Jamie Grant of Tampa. "Then I realized the complete genius in what he's doing. He's able to get his message directly to voters without being filtered through the mainstream media and others who will put a spin on it."

Power, 60, has used Twitter to flog "con man" Grant over business ethics and questioned his fidelity to the president, noting the lawmaker supported Jeb Bush then Marco Rubio in the presidential primary. "I was all in for @realDonaldTrump from the minute he came down the escalator," Power wrote recently.

Javier Manjarres, a Republican hoping to take on U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, has tried to gain notice with Trump inspired nicknames —"Lyin' Ted," "Terrified Ted," "Late Term Ted, "Open Borders Ted" — and provocative views on issues. Last week he incited controversy by tweeting at the father of a Parkland shooting victim to stop "exploiting" her death by calling for gun control.

Manjarres, who runs the Shark Tank political site, said he's always been unguarded but Trump has made it easier. "People want someone who's not afraid to speak their mind. They want plain talk."

Trump is a heavy force in the Republican gubernatorial primary between Ron DeSantis, whom the president has endorsed, and Adam Putnam, aka "Amnesty Adam," as DeSantis has called him over past immigration views. Putnam has adopted Trump's harder line on immigration, trade and other issues and has his own Trump like slogan — Florida First.

During their recent Fox News debate, where Trump and his policies dominated the discussion instead of state issues, DeSantis appeared to mimic some of the president's hand gestures, touching his pointer finger to his thumb in an "okay" symbol, moving his hands back and forth in a parallel motion (as if playing an accordion) and pointing when making a forceful argument.

At a recent DeSantis campaign event in Tampa, the audience revived one of the mainstays of Trump rallies, chanting "lock her up."

The phenomenon is playing out across the country. In Indiana's Republican U.S. Senate primary, a candidate ran a TV ad in which he pulled a red Make America Great Again cap from his back pocket and slid it on.

Another contender touted how he supported a push to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for dealings with North Korea. The winner, Mike Braun, is a businessman who blasted his rivals, both members of Congress, as "swamp creatures" and said he was running "because President Trump paved the way."

In West Virginia, Senate candidate Don Blankenship ran an ad that said, "We don't need to investigate our president. We need to arrest Hillary."

(The ad featured a snippet of Fox Business Network featuring DeSantis, who, like Gaetz, has grown his profile with repeated appearances that are decidedly pro-Trump.)

There are limits to how far Republican candidates will embrace Trump. Gov. Rick Scott faces token opposition for the nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and has been running a general election campaign that has whitewashed his ties to the president.

But with the Aug. 28 primary approaching, expect to see more Trumpism. Political consultants are working against the trend.

"I've got candidates all of a sudden wanting to be on Twitter. I say, 'Your Twitter account in northwest Florida doesn't mean squat. Put it down and go knock on some damn doors,' " said GOP consultant Alex Patton of Gainesville.

"People have a level of expectation out of candidates that Trump is somehow exempt from," said Brett Doster, who runs Republican campaigns across Florida and is coaching candidates to be themselves. "People tend to judge him more as an entertainer or figure that goes beyond politics so he just gets away with things."

Candidates, he added, "have to be very, very careful about it."

"People want positive feelings from a candidate," said state Rep. Joe Gruters, who was co-chairman of Trump's Florida campaign and is now running for state Senate. "Donald Trump is one and only. He developed his own brand through his TV show and other avenues that no one can emulate. Candidates will try, but I would never do it because I think it turns people off."

There's no better example than Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who ran for president in 2016 and tangled hard with Trump late in the primaries. Rubio tried to match Trump's style, mocking him for the size of his hands (code for another part of the anatomy), his misspellings and suggesting he wet himself during a debate.

The idea was to grab some of the media attention Trump's antics consumed, but it backfired miserably, diminishing Rubio's optimistic image. He later expressed regret.

A safer step among Republicans— and one being adopted widely across Florida and in other states — is to express solidarity with the president. GOP primaries are being dominated by fights over who is the more pure Trump supporter.

John Ward, who is running to replace DeSantis in Congress, recently ran a campaign ad attacking a rival, Michael Waltz, as a "never-Trumper" because he appeared in a 2016 advocacy group ad criticizing Trump. "Don't let Trump fool you," Waltz says.

Waltz responds that while Trump was not his first choice, he supported him as the nominee and thinks the president is doing a "fantastic job.". In a recent ad, the former Green Beret says, "It's time we send reinforcements to Congress for President Trump."

Tim Baker, a strategist who advises Waltz, said focus groups show Republican voters are drawn not to the Trump style per se, but what it represents.

"Conservatives feel under fire. They feel like the culture mocks them, the media mocks them and a lot of Republican leaders in the past have not been as aggressive in standing up and being unabashed. That's what Trump encompasses."

These voters can see through someone trying to act like Trump, he added, but are drawn to a fighter. "That's where the voters are right now — prove it."

A similar battle is playing out in the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland. Neil Combee, a former state legislator, has promoted himself as "the only candidate trusted by President Trump to Make America Great Again by serving in his administration," alluding to a USDA post. But last week, Combee came under attack from an anonymous website that recalled 2016 criticism he made of Trump.

Another candidate, state Rep. Ross Spano, hammers home the Trump focus on his own site. Under a section labeled "important issues," are a number of red boxes labeled "life" and "Second Amendment" and "immigration."

But the first one reads, "President Trump."

Times staff writers Emily L. Mahoney and Steve Contorno contributed to this report.