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Florida’s Republicans at crossroads after Capitol riot

The way forward is unclear for Florida Republicans. Those who abhorred Trump’s behavior for years hope other conservatives will move away from Trump.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington. Far-right social media users for weeks openly hinted in widely shared posts that chaos would erupt at the U.S. Capitol while Congress convened to certify the election results.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington. Far-right social media users for weeks openly hinted in widely shared posts that chaos would erupt at the U.S. Capitol while Congress convened to certify the election results. [ JOHN MINCHILLO | AP ]
Published Jan. 8, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — In the aftermath of the riot in the U.S. Capitol Building, as Congress weighed whether to accept each state’s results of the presidential election, three prominent, ambitious Florida Republicans voted three different ways.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio rejected efforts to invalidate President-elect Joe Biden’s wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania, the two states where GOP objections forced debate and votes. Sen. Rick Scott split the baby, voting to accept the results in Arizona but not in Pennsylvania. And U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz rejected Biden’s electors in both states — repeating a false claim that some of the rioters who broke into the Capitol were actually leftists posing as Trump fans.

The stances reflect the conflicting pathways forward for a Republican Party fractured by an assault in Washington and a demoralizing special election in Georgia in which the Democrats swept two Senate races and won total control in Congress.

“There’s a real divide within the party about what direction to go,” Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who served as communications director of Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said during an interview that took place in the opening moments as Trump’s supporters began to clash with police Wednesday in Washington. “Clearly some Republicans want to continue to be the party of Trump, and some want to shift to focusing on stopping Biden’s agenda. And I think those are mutually exclusive directions.”

The way forward is unclear. Republicans who’ve abhorred Trump’s behavior for years hope other conservatives will move away from Trump as quickly as they assimilated beneath him now that he’s only days removed from leaving office, with his influence at its nadir. Members of Trump’s administration have resigned in the hours since the riot. Once-staunch supporters have become critics.

“The divorce has begun. How long it takes and how it unfolds, we’ll see in the coming months,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman in Miami who frequently clashed with Trump while in office.

Back home in Florida

But in Trump’s home state of Florida, where he has played kingmaker and tilted the balance of power further toward the GOP, Republicans largely believe his influence will hold as long as he wants to keep it.

“Donald Trump and his family, and a whole army of corrupt people are not going to go away,’' said former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Al Cardenas, a longtime critic of the president. “They’ve raised all this money — ostensibly to fight in the courts — and they’ve got a kitty of several hundred million dollars. And my sense is they intend to use it to primary people [run Republican challengers against incumbents] in the 2022 elections.”

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Trump’s base in Florida’s Republican Party remains sturdy. Over the last four years, he built a coalition of Trump voters that appeared to help Republicans strengthen their grip on Tallahassee and Washington politics last year. His endorsement secured a Republican primary win in the 2018 gubernatorial race for Gov. Ron DeSantis, and helped Republicans like U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez — who voted to reject Biden electors Wednesday — win tough races.

In the state Republican party, Chairman Joe Gruters was co-chair of Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign. The party’s vice chairman, Christian Ziegler, attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington Wednesday that preceded the riot in the Capitol.

In an interview, Ziegler said that the president’s rally was “peaceful and a typical Trump rally,” but as the crowd marched to the Capitol there were people he suspects were “professional protesters” who “hijacked the event” and caused the riots.

He also distanced the party from the actions of the insurrectionists and the false claims of the president saying, “It was very important that Republican leaders condemned very quickly what happened in the Capitol, even those who opposed the Electoral College vote.” And he added, “I can’t control what the president says and what the strategy is there.’'

Trump’s name still carries significant weight in South Florida. His supporters have called Rubio a “traitor” in recent days and demonstrated outside his West Miami home. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Trump received a shout of “We love you!” when he phoned into the Republican National Committee winter meeting on Amelia Island in Northeast Florida.

Trump remains a political force

Republicans interviewed acknowledged that Trump had been damaged by the results in Georgia and the riot at the Capitol but said Trump’s supporters remain a force in Florida. Most Republicans elected from the state voted Wednesday evening to sustain objections to the votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania, the only two states where pro-Trump members of the U.S. House of Representatives were able to secure the necessary support in the Senate to bring their objections to a vote.

“This whole mess is going to cost some people, in primaries, particularly. In the end, the base is the base,” one GOP strategist said the morning after the Georgia election, prior to the riot in Washington. “If people think there’s going to be a return to Mitt Romney Republicanism … you’re out of your mind.”

For Scott and Rubio, who have sought to pave their own post-Trump paths, the president’s uncertain standing creates its own opportunities and challenges.

“They’ve been Trump supporters — tepid, but they’ve been supportive,” said another Republican strategist who spoke privately to the Miami Herald. “I don’t know what they do now. In Florida, [Trump] is popular.”

Nor is there necessarily a warm embrace waiting for Republicans who reject Trump. When Rubio tweeted Thursday that some people had “misled” Trump supporters into believing the results of Biden’s win could be overturned as a means to promote their political careers and raise money, he got a response from the anti-Trump Republican group, The Lincoln Project: “Look in the mirror.”

Cardenas, the former Florida GOP chairman, says that Republicans in the state are “petrified of pro-Trump supporters who would vote them out of office,” but he blames the party for condoning “a lot of the nonsense happening now.” He warns that unless party leaders stand up to what he believes is a trend toward violence, it will continue to be normalized, “and we’re going to live in continuing chaos.”

Conant, the former Rubio spokesman, questions whether Trump — who often says he only likes to hold rallies for himself — will stay interested and involved in Republican politics and primaries around the country once he leaves office.

But from the outside looking in, former Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly of St. Petersburg said he believes Trump’s command of the Republican Party, particularly in Florida, will remain as strong as he wants it to be.

“His grip on the party is real and very effective, and if he wants to keep that, he’s going to. If he decides to chase fortunes elsewhere, and face his fame through other platforms, then maybe the Republican Party would have some breathing room to sort through the last five years,” said Jolly, now executive chairman of the Serve America Movement, a political reform organization active as a third party in some states.

But Jolly, now an independent, said the Republican Party has been “totally reshaped by Donald Trump” and is also “as strong as it’s ever been.”

“What we see today is going to be with us for a very long time,’' he said. “The question to me is, who emerges to lead it? If Donald Trump tries to stay the head of the party, there won’t be room for anyone else to emerge. And so it will look like it looks today.”

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