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After debates, Democratic presidential candidates leave behind a vacuum in Florida for Trump to fill

It’s back to Iowa and New Hampshire for the contenders, leaving Trump unchecked in the country’s most important swing state.

They came. They debated. Now what?

Florida’s week hosting the Democratic debates and the party’s menagerie of candidates is over. Miami is in the rearview mirror. The contenders are back to stumping in Iowa’s 99 counties and holding court in New Hampshire living rooms, where the attention is likely to stay for much of the rest of the year.

Democrats leave behind a tremendous vacuum in the country’s most important swing state. Except for fundraising stops and a few small events, none of the campaigns have invested much time and energy in Florida and they don’t have plans to anytime soon. But while the candidates eat meat on a stick at county fairs and court New England newspaper endorsements, President Donald Trump is ramping up a well-funded, digitally savvy re-election machine in Florida and other 2020 battlegrounds.

Trump has already demonstrated his base is ready, holding a campaign kickoff in Orlando two weeks ago that drew roughly 20,000 to the Amway Center. And because he never left the campaign trail and has not changed his message, he is already well versed in the art of energizing supporters. Even as an incumbent he is framing the election as the next battle between Washington and the little guy.

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There are concerns in Democratic quarters that they lack a counter punch to Trump’s messaging. The Florida Democratic Party responded to Trump’s rally with a protest a few blocks away. They planned to fly a Trump baby balloon over downtown Orlando, but in a twist of fate that could stand in as a metaphor, thunderstorms grounded the inflatable.

A six-meter high cartoon baby blimp of U.S. President Donald Trump is flown as a protest against his visit, in Parliament Square in London, England, Friday, July 13, 2018. [Associated Press]

In an op-ed meant to raise the alarm, Ben LaBolt, one of the architects of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, warned that Trump is “running unopposed” in critical states like Florida. The two dozen Democratic candidates are understandably concentrated on the early nominating contests. Their operations are too meager to look ahead to Florida’s primary, which isn’t until March 17, let alone the general election.

The party and its allies need to pump money into blunting Trump’s message on the airwaves and through digital advertising now, LaBolt said. If not, “the Trump campaign will define the general election on its own terms, before we can even choose our nominee.”

Florida’s Democratic Party, though, isn’t in position to take on that effort alone. Party leaders are reckoning with years of mismanagement and narrow losses, and are still mastering the basics of party building: registering voters and recruiting candidates. The party hopes to add 200,000 Democrats to the voter rolls by the primary, part of former gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum’s strategy for 1 million new voters in 2020.

(After the story published, state Democratic Party executive director Juan Peñalosa on Twitted said that in addition to registering voters, the party has more than 100 paid organizers, it is training volunteers and plans for monthly five-figure ad buys “slamming Trump." In a statement, party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called it, "the largest pre-presidential election organizing effort in years, and we are ready to defeat Donald Trump in the Sunshine State for our Democratic nominee whomever she or he may be.”)

Veteran Democratic strategist Eric Jotkoff said those efforts will pay off and any money spent now on ads “you might as well light it on fire.” Jotkoff is less troubled by Trump’s frequent visits to Florida, he said, because his speeches are divisive rallying cries for his base that won’t recruit new Floridians to his side. Polls show Trump is more popular in Florida than in many other swing states but also that most Democrats would give him a difficult re-election fight.

“The more time Trump spends down here, the better it is for Democrats,” Jotkoff said. “He’s his own worst enemy.”

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Still, Democratic groups are preparing to fill the void. NextGen America, an organization funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, is planning a “robust paid program” targeting younger voters through social media influencers and digital ads, said spokeswoman Maya Humes.

Priorities USA, the largest Democratic Super PAC, has promised to spend $100 million this year in four battlegrounds: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. During the week Trump came to Orlando, the group blanketed local newspaper websites with messages of people hurt by the Republican administration’s health care policies and corporate tax cut.

“We fully expect Trump to outspend us, but we can run a smart and persuasive campaign filling the gap until we have a nominee,” Priorities USA spokesman Josh Schwerin said. “There are certain aspirational messages that only our candidates can deliver, but we intend to work with allied groups to make sure they’re working with paid media.”

In the past week, Democrats have shown the power of their presence. Most of the party’s candidates visited Homestead, the site of the largest detention facility for migrant children. Their protests there drew national media attention and energized grassroots activists in a way Floridians hadn’t experienced yet during this primary.

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It’s unclear when the candidates will return to Florida. The size of the field is unprecedented in a modern nominating contests and an early win can make or break a campaign.

But Florida is also a huge delegate haul that candidates can’t ignore forever. And absentee ballots are sent out starting Feb. 11, 2020 — the same day as the New Hampshire primary.


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