Who would The Villages back in a Trump-DeSantis clash?

The world’s largest retirement community has long been a Republican stronghold.
Golf carts line the streets near the Brownwood Paddock Square area pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 in The Villages.
Golf carts line the streets near the Brownwood Paddock Square area pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 in The Villages. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 27, 2022

THE VILLAGES — The world’s largest retirement community was comfortable with consensus.

If they talked about politics at all, Sherri Lake knew that most of her neighbors voted like her: enthusiastically and down the line Republican.

It made the day after Donald Trump launched another White House run unnerving.

“I supported him when he ran the last time, and I supported him throughout his presidency,” Lake, 77, told her friends while standing among the golf carts outside her local clubhouse. “But I’m not going to vote for somebody who’s gonna lose.”

“I’m waiting to see how he conducts himself,” said Jo Ann Burkett, 73.

“He calls Ron ‘Ron DeSanctimonious!’” said Ismay Czarniecki, 70, of Florida’s governor. She is a member of the Republican Federated Women of The Villages club. “If that’s how he’s starting off...”

“He’s got diarrhea of the mouth,” added Lake. She paused. “But I have hopes for (Gov. Ron) DeSantis.”

’Hold your nose’

With square footage larger than Manhattan, The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in Central Florida, has long been considered a Republican stronghold.

The retiree haven increasingly reflects Florida’s changing politics. It isn’t a purple battleground — 75% of its voters are registered Republicans.

But with Trump’s campaign announcement and DeSantis emerging as a likely presidential contender in 2024, Republicans in The Villages are staring down what may be a contentious primary — one where they must choose between a former president they vehemently loved and a current governor who seems ready-made for national office.

“Ron has the same policies as Trump,” said Debbie Fleming, a Villages resident in her 50s. “And he’s just such a nice guy.”

On Nov. 16, the day after Trump announced his third presidential campaign, the Tampa Bay Times spoke to 25 Republicans in The Villages about whom they would back in a primary showdown between DeSantis and the former president.

From tennis courts to town squares, retirees in the conservative enclave, which had strongly supported both candidates in past runs for public office, were torn.

Five said they would stay loyal to Trump. Five were undecided. Fifteen said they’d choose DeSantis over Trump.

All had voted for Trump in past presidential elections and were pleased with his policies while in office.

It was the former president’s conduct — from attacks on fellow Republicans to his association with the violence of Jan. 6 — that raised doubts among some seniors about whether he would be the strongest candidate in 2024.

The interviews are anecdotal. But the sentiments shared by seniors in the retirement community mirror early polls among older Floridians statewide.

A recent survey conducted by Spectrum News and Siena College found that 56% of adults who were 65 or older viewed DeSantis favorably. In contrast, just 49% of Sunshine State seniors said they approved of Trump.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

In a hypothetical 2024 match between Biden and DeSantis, DeSantis leads 48% to 42%, another October poll from Florida Atlantic University found, compared to Trump, who leads Biden 45% to 41%.

Each Villager said they’d nevertheless vote for Trump if he became the Republican nominee.

“Sure, hold your nose, vote for Trump,” said Mike Poynor, 56.

“But I don’t want him to run again,” echoed his friend, Steve Giardina, 70. “I liked what he did, but he’s got too much baggage now.”

‘I wish he would go away’

Seniors in scarlet baseball caps and blazers flooded into The Villages M.A.G.A. Club rally, the way Alycyn Culbertson had expected Republican voters to overtake the polls during the previous week’s midterms.

“This was supposed to be a red wave party,” said Culbertson, 72, while accepting tickets for the event in her Let’s Go Brandon shirt.

Roughly 70 people gathered at the Sterling Heights Pool and Recreation Center that evening, clad in equal parts “Trump 2024″ and “DeSantis 2022″: Stay free Florida!” memorabilia.

“Fox News is now against Donald Trump,” a speaker declared at one point, eliciting groans from the crowd.

Many remained confident that Trump was the Republican party’s best chance of winning the presidency in 2024.

“He’s got a real job ahead of him,” said club member Suzanne Zimmerman, as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” played on the speaker.

“But if anybody can do it, Trump can,” said Zimmerman, noting she believed Trump-backed candidates saw mixed results during midterms due to a lack of fundraising and campaign experience. “DeSantis can learn — he’s quick. But we need the teacher in office.”

Other conservative Villagers had their doubts.

“He just seems to be toxic to the party,” said resident Larry Hawkins, 72, outside one of the community’s golf courses that morning. “DeSantis isn’t as controversial. He has an excellent military background and family — and I don’t know if that would work nationally, but it sure worked here in Florida.”

“I am terrified,” said Nancy Mitchell, 74, while sitting down for a game of Catch Phrase with her husband and two friends at a nearby tennis court. “I wish (Trump) would go away. I think he is irrational — and I remember what it was like here in The Villages last time he ran. People did some really crazy things...

“I feel like our governor got us through the pandemic,” she added.

“It’s going to come down to the two of them. But Trump should not say bad things about DeSantis,” Fleming said before entering a local country club. “It’s not funny to us.”

“A lot of people didn’t vote for Biden in the last election — they voted against Trump,” added Rick Stried, 76. “There’s an awful lot of no-Trumpers.”

“I thought he did a very good job when he was president,” said Jeff Watson, 73. “I just wish he would chill out a little bit. Ronald Reagan had something he called the 11th commandment: ‘Thou shalt not talk ill about your fellow Republicans.’”

‘I care about results more than words’

Some conservative Villagers doubted whether their perspective accurately reflected the feelings of Republican and swing voters nationally.

Florida emerged as an outlier in this year’s midterms. DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio beat their Democratic opponents by double-digits and Republicans attained super-majorities in both chambers, leading many to mark the elections as a final nail in the coffin of the state’s purple status.

Other states, including those with far-right candidates endorsed by Trump, didn’t see the red wave some anticipated.

Many Villagers, particularly those who strongly favored the governor for 2024, also worried that living in Florida gave them an outsized sense of DeSantis’ importance.

“I’m concerned about whether he has the same level of support nationally as Trump,” said Watson. “If I had to choose, I would choose Donald Trump. Because I care about results more than words.”

Others saw this as the governor’s strongest advantage — believing DeSantis could attract voters who would never dare pick Trump.

Take Keith Barron. The 65-year-old and his wife, Suzanne Barron, 62, are Democrats. But the couple considers themselves “fringe-y.”

“This historically has been Trump Town,” he said. “But I voted for Biden last election. Trump is an (expletive).”

He inhaled briefly. “That being said, I think I would probably vote for DeSantis over Biden. He’s very pro-environment and pro-business.”