The Scott-DeSantis rally with Trump in Fort Myers — the capital of one of the most politically engaged Republican counties in the state — highlighted the partisan nature of Florida’s 2018 midterm election, in which both sides are ginning up their base voters with the two most popular figures in each party: Trump and former President Barack Obama, who visits Democrat-rich Miami on Friday.
“Is Southwest Florida Trump Country, or what?” DeSantis said when he took the stage to loud cheers.
The campaign event in the packed arena six days before Election Day showcased the classic hits of a Trump rally revival, replete with impromptu crowd chants of “USA!” and “CNN sucks!” and a new variant on an old theme: “Lock him up!” — a reference to the federal investigation swirling around DeSantis’ opponent in the gubernatorial contest, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Scott for months had run a more centrist campaign than DeSantis. But the two men remain in nearly tied races against their opponents, with most polls indicating the Democrats have the slightest of marginal leads.
Scott’s appearance at the rally was in doubt because he had both been keeping some distance from Trump and had announced after Hurricane Michael struck Florida on Oct. 10 that he was temporarily suspending all campaign trail appearances.
Trump praised Scott’s post-storm crisis management, which gave him a national platform but which unexpectedly failed to boost his poll numbers.
“He takes a problem. He turns it into an asset,” Trump said. “He’s a talent.”
For his part, Scott touted his close relationship with Trump who, Scott said, gave Florida everything it wanted when it was struck by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Michael.
Scott stuck to his longtime message of talking about jobs — specifically the 1.6 million private-sector jobs created during his two terms as governor — and described his opponent, Sen. Bill Nelson, as a do-nothing who has held various elected offices for four decades.
“Bill Nelson cares about one job: his,” Scott said to cheers, attacking the Democrat for voting against the “Trump tax cuts” and voting for tax increases while watching the national debt soar on his watch, although some of that future debt will be bigger because of the president’s tax cut package that Scott lauds.
Scott also accused Nelson of being for “catch and release” immigration policies, an allegation the Democrat’s campaign has denied.
But Scott steered clear of Trump’s hard-line talk on immigration, specifically his call to end birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment. It’s an issue Scott has tried to avoid personally discussing in depth, going so far as to walk away from a Miami Herald reporter who asked about it on Tuesday.
At the rally, DeSantis also accused his opponent of being soft on immigration and accused Gillum of supporting sanctuary cities, a claim that Gillum denied onstage at their last debate last week. DeSantis pointed out that Gillum wants to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency but didn’t mention that Gillum wants to have its duties carried out by the Justice Department. DeSantis also repeated his debunked claim that Tallahassee has the highest crime rate in Florida.
DeSantis described himself as the only candidate who had served in the military and who doesn’t want to raise taxes.
“I’m the only guy who can credibly say I’m not under investigation for corruption,” DeSantis said to applause.
Gillum, who maintains he was not a target of the FBI probe, has responded to the charges from DeSantis by accusing him of running interference for Trump in Congress to shut down a wide-ranging investigation of the president’s campaign that has resulted in numerous indictments, including Trump’s personal lawyer.
Gillum has called for Trump to be impeached. But DeSantis said Gillum should be kicked out of office instead.
“This is a guy who took bribes from an undercover FBI agent, took money from a lobbyist, didn’t pay back the lobbyist,” DeSantis said.
“Maybe we should impeach Gillum as mayor of Tallahassee!”
The crowd roared, with some chanting “Trump! Trump!” and others saying, “Lock him up!”
While the energy and enthusiasm in Hertz Arena was palpable, it’s unclear how effective it will be in turning out voters. In the county where the rally was held, Lee County, and neighboring Collier County, turnout for pre-Election Day early voting is among the highest in the state. Already, more than 36 percent have voted, many of them Republicans.
Trump learned that almost by accident.
“Who voted?” he asked, watching with disbelief as thousands raised their hands.
“Everybody voted already?” he asked to cheers. “Let me see again: who voted?”
Once again, they raised their hands and cheered.
Trump: “Then what the hell am I doing here tonight?”