The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Disasters and drama combine, again, in election-year Florida

Bruce Moore, Jr., 39, of St. Petersburg, Fla., says he has been trying to rally support among fellow African Americans for a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their time. (Edward Linsmier for The Washington Post)

MIAMI — Florida, again.

The nation’s biggest swing state has two epic contests Tuesday, for governor and U.S. Senate, along with several races that could help determine who controls the U.S. House. As usual, they are critical to the national hopes of Democrats and Republicans. And, as usual, most are too close to call in a state with a rapidly changing population that somehow manages to produce cliffhangers every other November.

Voters this year are agitated by the same issues resonating elsewhere — health care and immigration, among them — but they also are motivated by a year of natural and man-made Florida-based disasters.

The latest came Friday, when a man with a history of posting misogynistic and racist material online charged into a yoga studio in Tallahassee and allegedly shot and killed two women and wounded others before killing himself. That comes two weeks after the arrest of Cesar Sayoc, a former stripper living in a van in Broward County, whom authorities have accused of mailing pipe bombs to people and organizations criticized by President Trump. And many are still dealing with the aftereffects of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February that killed 17 students and staff members.

“There’s something about being in a bathroom with 18 first-graders who are crying. And you tell them that we have to be quiet because we have to practice in case a bad man comes into school with a gun,” said Deanna Ferello, 27, a schoolteacher in Davie, not far from Parkland.

She was speaking Friday at a Democratic Party rally in Miami headlined by former president Barack Obama. She said that, during a recent drill, one child said he thought he heard someone coming. She had to reassure him: There’s no one there. This is just practice.

“It’s horrible,” she said.

In the panhandle, where Trump held a rally Saturday, residents are still recovering from Hurricane Michael, which ravaged coastal communities and a military base. The center of the state has seen an influx of thousands of Puerto Ricans — new voters, potentially — since Hurricane Maria devastated their island last year. On both coasts, the noxious and toxic red tide algae has bloomed, while green algae has choked inland waters.

What voters decide on this stew of issues and events will have significant consequences on Tuesday, as well as for the 2020 presidential election.

If Democrats have any hope of regaining control of the Senate, they will probably need Sen. Bill Nelson to hold on to his seat against a strong challenge from Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Polls have shown Nelson holding a small lead.

The race to replace Scott pits Republican Ron DeSantis, a handpicked Trump candidate who would give the president a powerful ally in Florida, against Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a progressive African American who would become a Democratic darling if he pulls it out. Polls have also shown Gillum maintaining a narrow edge over the former congressman.

A patchwork electorate

Florida is “purple” in the political vernacular, but it is really a patchwork of deep-red and deep-blue communities, with increasing ideological segregation (see: America 2018). Plus, there are some places so newly sprung from the pine forests and swamps that they haven’t been assigned a color.

The demographic rule of thumb in Florida is that it grows by nearly a thousand people a day. It remains a haven for retirees, but more than half the electorate is also under the age of 52.

This complex and bewilderingelectorate poses a challenge to any candidate in a statewide campaign. So does the state’s size. Pensacola to Key West is an 832-mile drive. A candidate has to be comfortable in Dixie as well as in what is effectively a satellite of Latin America. And there are the places that aren’t really places yet.

Take a new freeway from the heart of Tampa to the east, to the suburb of Brandon, and visit the Brandon Chamber of Commerce. Ask the staffer there where the center of Brandon is.

“There isn’t one,” she says.

Okay, so where’s the old part of town?

“That cow pasture back there,” she says.

Among the new voters in Florida is Sonia Aviles, 65, who survived Hurricane Maria in her concrete-block home in Puerto Rico last year and 21 days later arrived at Orlando International Airport.

At the airport reception area for hurricane survivors, Aviles was offered an opportunity to register to vote. She put herself down as independent. That’s how she thought of herself in Puerto Rico.

She’s changed her mind.

“I’ve studied what’s going on and now I know that I am a Democrat,” she said this week as she dined with her daughter and baby granddaughter at Melao Bakery here in Central Florida.

She didn’t like how President Trump tossed rolls of paper towels to people on the island after the storm. She finds the president frightening: “I’m afraid someday he’ll say ‘Let’s burn books.’ ”

Southwest, in Fort Myers, John McLaughlin, 52, is a sheet-metal worker who six years ago moved to the state from Philadelphia. This past Wednesday, he attended Trump’s Make America Great Again rally in a packed arena alongside Interstate 75 in Estero.

“They say he’s crazy. My thing is, that guy says what I’m thinking. So if you say he’s crazy, you’re saying I’m crazy, too,” he said.

Walking toward the arena, McLaughlin passed a protester with an “Impeach 45” sign, and said to the man, “Why?”

“Because he’s a liar,” the protester said.

“Get outta here! You’re crazy! You’re loony!” McLaughlin said.

Republicans in Florida see prosperity all around them. They also see threats.

“Republicans want strong borders, no crime, no chaos and no caravans. Democrats want open borders, and they want to invite caravan after caravan into our country, which brings crime upon crime,” Trump said in the arena. “A Democrat victory on Election Day would be a bright flashing invitation to traffickers, smugglers, drug dealers and gang members all over the world, come on in.”

Ron Gavin, 62, and his wife Lori, 51, of Fort Myers, attended the rally and are solid Trump supporters.

“They’ve kind of called it the invasion, that’s pretty much what it is — an invasion,” Ron said.

“We should be taking care of our own before we let in any more,” Lori said.

Craig Lougheed, 74, who worked in the insurance business and has been in Southwest Florida for seven years, said of Trump: “He’s like a miracle worker. He’s making history like no one has ever seen before in America.”

Del Whaley, 69, of Ocala, showed up in his “God Hates Divorce” T-shirt. He said he likes Trump’s stance on taxes. The Democrats? “They’re in full support of baby killing, and I think they have a philosophy of controlling people through welfare,” Whaley said.

Scott and DeSantis each had a few minutes at the microphone while Trump stood to one side. Scott is not running a strictly red-meat campaign. He spoke of how nice Americans were after Hurricane Michael.

“People from all over this country came down here and took care of our citizens,” he said, to polite applause. “They brought food, water, generators, tarps. They did everything to take care of our citizens. And you know what? They didn’t say, ‘Oh, what party are you?’ ”

DeSantis was more fiery, attacking Gillum repeatedly. When he alluded to a federal corruption probe that has entangled associates of Gillum, the crowd chanted “Lock! Him! Up! Lock! Him! Up!”

This was preaching to the already persuaded. At one point, Trump had asked people to raise their hand if they’ve voted. Thousands of hands shot into the air. A majority of the crowd, probably.

“Wow,” Trump said. He repeated the question, as if maybe there had been some confusion. All those hands shot up again.

“Then what the hell am I doing here tonight? Goodbye,” he joked.

With white retirees booming and younger, diverse generations growing, Florida’s political future will be determined by who turns out for the midterms on Nov. 6. (Video: Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post)

Voter unpredictability

The parties are ideologically organized, and the tribes are strong, but people don’t always vote predictably.

Consider Terry Maroney, 67, a retired sugar cane farm manager, a widower, living in the no-stoplight small town of Palmdale in Glades County, which borders Lake Okeechobee. He can tell you the difference between growing cane in muck and growing it in sand. On paper he’s in the “likely Republican” demographic, but he’s voting Democratic.

He has supervised immigrant farmworkers and says they work harder than native-born Americans. They’re the first out of the truck to open a gate. He was dismayed when one of the big sugar cane companies got rid of good workers because they lacked papers.

He notes that some of his neighbors fly Confederate flags.

“In a town like Palmdale, you still have racism. So when it comes to the governor, there are people who aren’t going to vote for him because he’s black,” he said.

Up the road in Sebring, truck driver Bruce Moore Jr., 39, of St. Petersburg, said he has been trying to rally support among fellow African Americans for a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that would restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their time.

“A large amount of blacks don’t believe in voting. It’s sad,” he said.

Not far away, Barbara Cochlin, 61, who was picking up her Nissan Maxima at a carwash, said, “We used to vote people, not party, but now the Florida Democratic Party is getting too uppity.”

She said she thinks the swing-state status of Florida has incited the Democrats to be “aggressive.” She would like to see the Republicans answer in kind. “You gotta find somebody like a WWF wrestler,” she said. “We need somebody very vulgar.”

Up the road, in Frostproof, an orange-grove town nestled between lakes, Justin Deen, 51, who sells vintage cars, leaned against a 1963 Buick Skylark while his red-nosed pit bull, Hefner, curled on a cool spot on the concrete.

Deen said he doesn’t have any use for career politicians. But he supports Republicans. And there’s no way he would vote for Gillum, he said. “He wants Trump to be impeached. You think Trump’s gonna want to work with him?”

Rallying supporters

Several thousand people packed the Ice Palace Film Studios for Friday’s Democratic Party rally. The event began with a joint prayer by a rabbi, a preacher and an imam. The rabbi read the names of the people targeted by the pipe bombs. He then read the names of the two African Americans recently slain in Kentucky by a gunman who allegedly had tried first to get into a black church. And then he read the names of the Jews slain by a gunman Oct. 27 at their synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Next came speeches by numerous Democrats running for office. People murmured as they waited for the big names to get their turn. When Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, took the stage, he howled that the weekend had been canceled — because everyone had to go get out the vote.

The volume dropped precipitously when Nelson appeared and delivered his lines as if speaking in someone’s living room. The senator seemed most animated when he mentioned creating new aerospace jobs and said, “We’re going to Mars!”

Gillum came on, finally, as the crowd went wild.

“I want a chance to go to Tallahassee and to take on the NRA” — cheers from the crowd — “and let them know that their time of running Tallahassee has come to an end!” Gillum said. “No parent ought to have to send their child to school worried about whether they will pick them up alive or in a body bag.”

And then came Obama, sleeves rolled up, defending his legacy (the economy is going good because Democrats cleaned up the Republican mess), deriding the “fearmongering” and “lying” of the Republicans, and saying the election will give Americans a chance to reveal “the better angels of our nature.”

The Democrats departed feeling confident.

“We got it in the bag. No doubt about it,” said Victoria Lewis, 73, referring to the governor’s race. “Because the other guy doesn’t have a clue.”

But Florida Democrats notoriously don’t turn out in high numbers for midterms, and nearly three in 10 Florida voters are independents and it’s difficult to know what they’ll do. It’s possible there could be a split outcome, with one party winning the Senate race and the other the governorship.

Politics can split a household, too. Vern Hollingsworth, 75, of Sebring, knows all about that, he revealed during a brief break from waxing his 2013 Cadillac in the carport of his home in Hammock Mobile Estates.

He said he’s already voted for the Democratic ticket. But he added, “it didn’t really count because my wife voted for just the opposite of me.”

That’s how it always goes, he said. He’s a D, she’s an R.

So how do the Hollingsworths resolve their political differences?

“You never get that resolved,” he said, and then went back to waxing the Cadillac.