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Florida’s summer to forget: How July derailed the presidential campaign in the biggest swing state

Missteps, shakeups, internal strife beset Florida Republicans and Democrats with three months to go.

When the story of the 2020 election is written, July will not be remembered as a high point for either of the two major political parties in Florida.

In the middle of a pandemic, Republicans chased a doomed party convention in Jacksonville that President Donald Trump ultimately canceled mid-month because of the coronavirus. And with his Florida poll numbers in free fall, Trump ousted his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who was especially invested in the Sunshine State

Democrats stepped into scandal last month by taking federal loans intended to help businesses hurt by the coronavirus, stirring an intra-party fight over the blunder. Meanwhile, the effort to elect former Vice President Joe Biden in Florida is beset with criticism from rank-and-file Democrats who fear the party is on the same failed trajectory as four years ago.

Missteps, shakeups, internal strife — none of this is uncommon in the sometimes messy world of presidential campaigns. In conversations with the Tampa Bay Times, representatives for both candidates suggested there’s a long way to go until Election Day — now 93 days away.

But this is Florida, the king of all swing states, where elections are won and lost by razor-thin margins. Given the stakes, concerns over any unforced errors are amplified.

“It’s too early to panic,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat. “But at the same time, way too many silly mistakes are being made.”

•••

Florida Democrats entered the middle of summer riding a spate of good news. Most public polls show their likely nominee, Biden, leads Trump by a comfortable margin. For the first time in recent memory, the party had a candidate running in nearly every state legislative race and dozens of local races that Republicans have often won without a fight.

And there’s the vote-by-mail advantage: 540,000 more Democrats are signed up to receive a ballot at home than Republicans. Even in a traditionally red county like Pasco, there are 6,000 more Democrats registered to vote-by-mail than Republicans, a reversal from four years ago.

Local Democratic Party leaders saw these developments as a sign that the state party was well-positioned for a general election fight after a series of close, devastating defeats. But when officials from the Biden campaign showed up to take over the state presidential campaign, some county party leaders felt their work was ignored and pushed aside — just like Hillary Clinton had done in her losing 2016 campaign.

As the tension mounted, the Florida Democratic Party sought out and received a loan of at least $780,000 via the $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program, a coronavirus relief fund for businesses. The money was returned, but the controversy raised questions about the party’s leadership, posing a distraction in the middle of election season.

Internal grievances were aired publicly at the Democratic Party’s annual meeting in July when several county party chairs warned of early missteps by the Biden campaign, Politico reported. A week later, more than 90 field organizers sent a letter, obtained by the Miami Herald, accusing the Biden campaign of suppressing the Hispanic vote, mistreating staffers and moving field organizers out of the communities they know.

Several county party chairs told the Tampa Bay Times that doubts persist with the national campaign. Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairwoman Ione Townsend said she is worried the Biden campaign isn’t taking advantage of relationships her party has with voters in their communities. Others feel the same.

“The Biden campaign has no respect for what was done by the Florida Democratic Party,” said John Ford, chairman of the Pasco County Democrats. “They say they’re putting their strategy together and, ‘We’ll be in touch.’ You mean they didn’t have a playbook in their briefcase when they came off the plane? To me, that’s concerning.”

Another chair who spoke up at the Democratic meeting, Orange County’s Wes Hodge, told the Times on Wednesday that a lack of communication continued to hinder efforts. Hours later, he said he had since heard from the Biden campaign. “They have adequately been willing to listen,” he reported back. Samantha Herring with the Walton County Democrats said she doesn’t share the concerns of her peers and told the Times that the Biden campaign has already surpassed Clinton’s campaign efforts in the Panhandle in 2016.

“There’s always some squabbling going on during a coordinated campaign,” Herring said.

Biden campaign spokeswoman Carlie Waibel said they are “working closely with our partners across the state to mobilize our supporters and reach more voters.” The state campaign recently put in charge Jackie Lee, a veteran of Florida elections and a top adviser to Biden’s successful primary campaign.

“More than ever before, the road to the White House runs through Florida,” Waibel said. “We don’t take that fact lightly.”

•••

Campaigns don’t often change generals when they’re doing well. So when Trump moved Parscale, his campaign manager, to a much smaller role in his operation, it was widely seen as a sign of trouble.

Parscale’s July demotion was especially felt in Florida. Parscale had moved to South Florida since the 2016 election and was largely operating the campaign out of Fort Lauderdale. He had assured many Florida Republicans over the past 18 months that the campaign was a well-funded, technological juggernaut with a three-year head start over Democrats, and but guaranteed victory in November.

But Trump’s sinking poll numbers said otherwise. Other signs, like falling behind Democrats in vote-by-mail, suggested they didn’t have much to show for their early advantages. As he pushed out Parscale, Trump put a familiar face atop his reelection team here: Susie Wiles, the head of his 2016 Florida campaign who was briefly dismissed from Trump’s orbit after a falling out with Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Emma Vaughn, spokeswoman for the Republican National Campaign declined to comment on Parscale’s exit, but said: “Susie is a veteran political professional who played an integral role in delivering Florida for President Trump in 2016. Come November, Florida will once again deliver 29 electoral votes for President Trump.”

Brian Ballard, finance chairman of Trump’s Florida campaign in 2016, acknowledged in a recent interview that the basics of campaigning — which falls under the Republican Party of Florida — has been wanting but is getting better. Phone calls to party chair Joe Gruters was not returned.

“Let’s get the blocking and tackling in better shape,” said Ballard. “Hiring Susie Wiles was a very smart move. The organizational development is improving and will continue to improve.”

Trump’s attacks on universal mail ballots, which continued this week, aren’t helping Florida Republicans, who for years championed vote-by-mail as an effective leg of their get-out-the-vote effort.

The party has sent mixed signals in its attempts to play catch up on vote-by-mail. The Republican Party of Florida in recent weeks sent a series of mailers, each more urgent than the next. “Immediate action required: You must request an absentee ballot for the 2020 election to ensure your right to securely vote absentee,” one of these mail pieces says.

But others take their marching orders from Trump. Hillsborough County GOP Jim Waurishuk said the disparity in vote-by-mail signups is a concern, but the party prefers people to “experience voting in person,” and “for those who choose to vote by mail, you have that right and that option and we tell them that, and that’s all we can do.”

All of this comes as Trump has been effectively sidelined by the coronavirus. By this point in 2016, Trump’s national arena tour frequently brought him to Florida — 19 times between Labor Day and Election Day. So far this year, he’s finding opportunities for smaller visits in targeted media markets. He ended the month with a trip on Friday to Tampa that combined a campaign speech on the tarmac of Tampa International Airport, a fundraiser with a brief public update about the coronavirus and Hurricane Isaias.

Republicans hoped the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville could jump start Trump’s static Florida campaign. They convinced Trump to move the convention from Charlotte, despite a 90-day turnaround and a worsening public health crisis. For weeks, party and Trump officials focused time and energy trying to pull off the impossible.

When Trump finally pulled the plug on July 23, he caught Florida Republicans by surprise. Many were still working on the convention up until the moment he canceled it.

Miami Herald reporter David Smiley contributed to this report.

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