Never-Trumpers who want to burn down house in Florida have tough choice

In Florida, anti-Trump Repub­li­cans may have the most dif­fi­cult choice of any de­mo­graphic in vot­ing for gover­nor. Will they pick Trump-en­dorsed Ron DeSan­tis over un­abashedly lib­eral An­drew Gil­lum, or write in Mickey Mouse?

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - In Depth - BY DAVID SMI­LEY dsmi­ley@mi­ami­her­ald.com

They want to burn the house down. And in Florida, An­drew Gil­lum is their spark. Never-Trumpers, that shrink­ing seg­ment of the Repub­li­can Party that can’t fathom sup­port­ing some­one who has shat­tered ev­ery norm of the pres­i­dency, are weigh­ing a nu­clear op­tion as the Sun­shine State ap­proaches the midterm elec­tions. Faced with a choice be­tween an un­abashed lib­eral and a Don­ald Trump ap­pren­tice in the race for gover­nor, they are cross­ing the thin red line and vot­ing for a can­di­date who wants to raise the min­i­mum wage and hike cor­po­rate taxes.

In some cases, Repub­li­cans are vot­ing for Gil­lum not be­cause of any­thing he says or stands for, but be­cause they be­lieve a de­feat for GOP nom­i­nee Ron DeSan­tis would be a high-pro­file in­dict­ment of Trump and the first step to­ward end­ing the pres­i­dent’s reign. For those who refuse to cede the di­rec­tion of the party to some­one they view as an em­peror with no clothes, Gil­lum is a means to an end.

“There’s a cat­e­gory of Repub­li­cans who I’ll call the burn-it­down folks,” said vet­eran Repub- li­can con­sul­tant Mac Sti­panovich, who has blis­tered Trump even as the rest of the party in Florida has fallen in line. “They think that the only thing that can change the mo­men­tum that is Trump and Trump­ism is de­feat. Mas­sive, bit­ter de­feat. And they’re vot­ing straight Demo­crat tick­ets.”

For those in the state party dis­gusted with Trump’s an­tics and rhetoric, Florida’s 2018 midterms present an ex­is­ten­tial di-

lemma. DeSan­tis, a for­mer con­gress­man who broad­ened his ap­peal by de­fend­ing Trump and con­demn­ing Robert Mueller’s Rus­sia probe on Fox News, owes much of his pri­mary win over party-lifer Adam Put­nam to the pres­i­dent’s endorsement. And Gov. Rick Scott, who’s run­ning to un­seat Bill Nel­son in the U.S. Se­nate, chaired a proTrump Su­per PAC in 2016.

Af­ter ral­ly­ing with DeSan­tis in Tampa in late July, Trump will visit the state twice this week, in­clud­ing an ap­pear­ance Wed­nes­day in Fort My­ers with DeSan­tis and Scott. The pres­i­dent is hop­ing to rally the GOP faith­ful, but is also forc­ing those in his party who view him as anath­ema to their val­ues to de­cide what to do at the bal­lot box.

“The more he in­serts him­self into that race the more he helps An­drew Gil­lum,” Ana Navarro, a Repub­li­can strate­gist from Mi­ami, said Tues­day on CNN.

Ex­actly how many dis­af­fected Repub­li­cans will vote for Gil­lum is hard to mea­sure. Sti­panovich thinks the num­ber will be in­signif­i­cant even in a state where com­pet­i­tive statewide races have re­cently been de­cided by a sin­gle per­cent­age point. A whop­ping 14 peo­ple like a “Repub­li­cans for Gil­lum” Face­book page.

More than likely, Sti­panovich thinks, Repub­li­cans like him­self who’ve re­jected the pol­i­tics of their pres­i­dent and can’t stom­ach the idea of vot­ing for his pro­tégé will protest in a way less of­fen­sive to their own po­lit­i­cal views. Or, he said, they’ll ra­tio­nal­ize that DeSan­tis is not Trump, and vote for him de­spite mis­giv­ings.

“I think it’s fair to say that I will not vote for Ron DeSan­tis,” said Sti­panovich. “But I think it’s un­likely, ob­vi­ously, that I’ll vote for An­drew Gil­lum. I con­sider my­self to be a con­ser­va­tive. That would limit me and Never-Trumpers like me to ‘no’ votes, or some cutesy silly state­ment. Write in Prince Charles, or what­ever.”

Mike Fer­nan­dez, a wealthy Coral Gables po­lit­i­cal booster who once served as a fi­nance cochair­man for Scott, en­dorsed Hil­lary Clin­ton against Trump in the 2016 elec­tion but wrote in Jeb Bush’s name on his bal­lot. He is among the Repub­li­can boost­ers who’ve turned their backs on the party of Trump, shirk­ing party af­fil­i­a­tion and in­vest­ing six fig­ures in Gil­lum’s cam­paign.

Bush, on the other hand, sup­ports DeSan­tis.

Al Hoff­man, a ma­jor GOP donor who has pub­licly de­clared his dis­ap­point­ment in Trump, is also vot­ing for DeSan­tis even though the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee is on the op­po­site side of Hoff­man on gun leg­is­la­tion. Hoff­man has said he won’t give money any longer to can­di­dates who don’t sup­port an as­sault weapons ban, but hopes to per­suade DeSan- tis to see things dif­fer­ently af­ter he wins.

“I know Gil­lum is pro ban­ning as­sault weapons. But I’m not a Demo­crat and I’m cer­tainly not a lib­eral so­cial­is­tic style Demo­crat as Gil­lum is. It’s DeSan­tis to me. I hope the rest of the Repub­li­can party will vote for him too,” said Hoff­man.

That rub is one of the rea­sons that so many Florida Democrats ar­gued for the more mod­er­ate Gwen Gra­ham dur­ing the Demo­cratic pri­mary. Gra­ham is a for­mer con­gress­woman who served a term in Repub­li­can-lean­ing North Florida. Gil­lum ran on an un­abashedly pro­gres­sive plat­form. But how­ever left he may be, he still thinks he’s lur­ing Repub­li­cans to the bal­lot box.

“I don’t as­sume that ev­ery Repub­li­can who has voted is vot­ing for Ron DeSan­tis,” Gil­lum said Satur­day dur­ing an in­ter­view. “I think we know in the polling that that’s not the case.”

Some Repub­li­cans are break­ing for Gil­lum for rea­sons un­re­lated to a dis­taste for Trump. Jen­nifer Pitts McKenna, an Or­lando Repub­li­can who gained a lit­tle no­to­ri­ety when she an­nounced her de­ci­sion to vote Demo­crat on Face­book last week, said she’s be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with Trump since vot­ing for him in 2016. She voted early for Gil­lum over DeSan­tis be­cause she thinks he’d be a bet­ter gover­nor.

“I don’t know I would say nec­es­sar­ily that my vote is a ref­er­en­dum on Don­ald Trump,” said Pitts McKenna, who says she or­dered a “Repub­li­cans for Gil­lum” T-shirt on a cus­tom cloth­ing web­site be­fore Gil­lum’s cam­paign rolled out its of­fi­cial mer­chan­dise.

But in Mi­ami, Marc, a 41-year-old Repub­li­can who asked that the Her­ald not use his last name out of con­cern of of­fend­ing his em­ployer, said he’s vot­ing for Democrats in or­der to wrest po­lit­i­cal con­trol of the state away from his party. He’s a self-de­scribed “fis­cal con­ser­va­tive,” and so he’s slightly ill af­ter com­mit­ting to vote for Gil­lum. But he thinks the Repub­li­can Party has gone off the rails from Trump down to the state Leg­is­la­ture, where he thinks ger­ry­man­der­ing has turned the state into a hy­per­par­ti­san snake pit.

“I’ll be vot­ing for An­drew Gil­lum, un­for­tu­nately,” he said.

For­mer con­gress­man David Jolly also fits that de­scrip­tion. He shirked party af­fil­i­a­tion this month af­ter serv­ing as a Repub­li­can in the U.S. House, say­ing he could no longer iden­tify with the party of Trump. Since then, he says other Repub­li­cans tell him they’re split­ting their bal­lots in or­der to vote against Ron DeSan­tis.

“I’ve spo­ken to Repub­li­can vot­ers who un­der­voted in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race be­cause they couldn’t bring them­selves to vote for Hil­lary Clin­ton. But this go-round, they’re bring­ing them­selves to vote for An­drew Gil­lum,” he said. (An un­der­vote refers to a voter not mark­ing a choice in a par­tic­u­lar race.) “There’s a break-itso-it-can-be-re­built el­e­ment. I also re­ally think it’s just a plain re­jec­tion of all things Don­ald Trump and his sur­ro­gates.”

Jolly, who at one point con­sid­ered a split ticket for gover­nor with Demo­cratic for­mer con­gress­man Pa­trick Mur­phy, has al­ready voted.

“I’ve turned in my bal­lot. I voted for An­drew Gil­lum,” said Jolly. “The rea­son is sim­ple: It’s be­cause I’ve served with Ron DeSan­tis.”

Tampa Bay Times re­porter Kirby Wil­son con­trib­uted to this re­port.

SU­SAN WALSH AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talks about im­mi­gra­tion and gives an up­date on bor­der se­cu­rity from the Roo­sevelt Room of the White House in Wash­ing­ton on Thurs­day.

CHRIS O'MEARA AP

An­drew Gil­lum

CHRIS O'MEARA AP

Ron DeSan­tis

Jen­nifer Pitts McKenna

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