As the November 2020 presidential election looms ever closer, Florida will be (as usual) a key battleground state. Our coverage of all things Donald Trump will no doubt increase exponentially. Things kicked off this week with trips to St Petersburg and Orlando, the latter for the Trump 2020 launch party on Tuesday. Here are my two stories for The Guardian from a busy week on the political beat.
In November 2016, the morning after Donald Trump was elected president, Pastor Andy Oliver (pictured) put on his clerical collar and stepped outside the Allendale United Methodist church in St Petersburg with a sign he had stayed up late to make. It read: “We Choose Love.”
The voters of Pinellas county, the biggest and most significant swing county in Florida, had just helped Trump into the White House after backing Barack Obama in two straight elections, and as the day wore on, Oliver’s parishioners joined him in the street with signs echoing his message.
“I knew a lot of people were afraid of what was to come. People of color, LBGTQ people, those that practice a different religion, people who live in the margins of society,” he said. “We had seen some threats, but we didn’t know then what this Trump presidency was going to bring.”
Now, with Trump announcing his 2020 re-election bid on Tuesday just 100 miles to the east in Orlando, and with Pinellas set once again to play a pivotal role in that election, Oliver’s church in the historic Allendale neighborhood close to downtown St Pete is a hive of activity.
Rainbow-colored Pride banners, Black Lives Matter and Co-exist flags hang outside meeting rooms, nurses gather to discuss collective bargaining rights, affordable housing advocates plot their lobbying strategies – all community groups doing what Oliver calls “the work of the resistance”.
“We decided as a church to open our space to any group doing work for justice in the community,” he said. “Advocating healthcare for all, advocacy work around what people of color are experiencing, gun reform, women’s reproductive rights, all those things that are under threat right now.”
And while the pastor says the activism is social rather than political – “we’d organize equally as hard if a Republican championed these values,” he insists – the target is unmistakable.
Even the public messages on the church’s marquee, which have occasionally landed Oliver in hot water, are focused directly on controversies that Trump has fomented: “White Supremacy is the real crisis,” read one, and at Christmas: “We can’t worship the child in the manger while turning our backs on the child at the border.”
“The best thing about the Trump presidency is that he has motivated a lot of people to pay attention and work together and find tangible ways to love each other,” Oliver said.
If history is any guide, whichever way Pinellas county voters swing next November will decide if Trump wins another four years in the White House.
The heavily populated county at the western end of Florida’s I-4 corridor has backed every winning presidential candidate, five Republicans and four Democrats, since 1980, the anomaly of the 2000 election excepted. It was also the largest of only four Florida counties, out of 67, that swung to Trump in 2016 after supporting Obama in the two previous contests.
“Trump won Pinellas by barely 1% so it’s not like we’re in the middle of a red county,” said Barbara Scott, chair of the Pinellas Democratic party.
“The county is a swatch of America. In St Pete, you could easily be in California – they lean left big time. In the north part of the county there are a lot of retirees, people who are older, more conservative, and in the middle you have this mix, the older population and young families, who are 30s to 50s.
“We’ve pushed south Pinellas, I believe, strongly to be blue, and the middle part is now leaning really blue. And we’re going to turn the north part of this county purple. That’s our plan to deliver Pinellas in 2020.”
For Democrats hoping to oust Trump, recent developments have been positive. Charlie Crist, a former state governor, reversed 33 years of Republican dominance to flip Florida’s 13th congressional district, incorporating the lower two-thirds of Pinellas county, in 2016.
In last year’s midterms, the county went blue again by backing Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson in their ultimately unsuccessful statewide campaigns for the governor’s mansion and US Senate seat respectively.
Scott, however, insists there is no room for complacency, and soon after becoming county chair following the midterms called together party leaders of neighboring Tampa Bay area counties to discuss strategy for 2020 and beyond in what she calls the “bay blue bloc”.
“I knew we could do more,” she said. “The Democrat is not going to get elected by just commenting on how horrible a president Donald Trump is.”
A coordinated campaign focused on ground-level canvassing, Scott believes, will be crucial, and activists are already knocking on doors months before a Democrat is even nominated to challenge Trump.
“Grassroots is grassroots is grassroots,” she said. “We’re canvassing Democrats who didn’t vote in the midterms, or maybe 2016, and we’re asking ‘hey, what issues are important to you, what issues would encourage you to vote for a candidate?’, so we can focus our targets for next year when we have that candidate.”
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who was Obama’s Florida campaign chair, believes the county is crucially significant. “In 08 and 12, Obama’s first real general election campaigning in Florida was both times in Pinellas, and that wasn’t accidental,” he said.
“I hesitate to say the person who wins Pinellas wins Florida, but it’s hard to see a scenario where a Democrat loses Pinellas but wins Florida.
“Pinellas now is a very expensive place to live, so there is that squeeze on people. One of the things we leaned into with Obama was his plan to reform the tax code by cutting middle-class taxes.”
Republicans locally agree on the importance of the economy and voters’ personal finances when it comes to making a decision, but believe that works in Trump’s favor.
“Pinellas proved that you could have a Republican president with a message that reaches the blue-collar, working-class Democrat,” said Anthony Pedicini, a senior GOP strategist and adviser.
“The strategy has to be the proof to those white, male Democratic blue-collar voters that the economy is better, that their situation in life is better, they’re making more money and able to invest in their families and their futures, and that President Trump is the one helping them to do that.”
Donald Trump was looking for lightning to strike twice. And for thousands of his faithful supporters who had waited for hours outside Orlando’s Amway Center on one of the stormiest days of the Florida summer, it did.
Crashing thunder and lightning bolts during the afternoon provided a fitting build-up for the noise and raucousness of the evening rally, at which Trump announced his re-election bid in front of 20,000 “Make America Great Again” fans.
Thousands more who were unable to snag a seat inside watched the proceedings on giant screens across the plaza, the sea of bright red Maga hats providing a splash of colour against the gray skies and dark clouds overhead.
“We’re here to support our president starting his campaign for four more years, but really everything he’s done in the last two years has delivered the message already,” Jake Morton, a car mechanic from Tampa, said. He and his wife had waited for more than four hours in the rain, without an umbrella and not even close to the front of the line that began to snake around the buildings adjacent to the arena before daybreak.
Unsurprisingly, no welcome mat was rolled out for the president by Florida’s Democrats, who held their own “Win With Love” community rally at a popular LBGTQ hangout a short walk from the Amway Center.
“We know what Donald Trump is going to say today, same old lies he always does,” said Terrie Rizzo, the chair of the Florida Democratic party, speaking at the nearby Stonewall bar in Orlando. “But we have a message for Donald Trump: in 2020, Florida will defeat you.”
Flying high over the large early evening gathering at the Stonewall bar was the Trump baby blimp, a staple of recent protests against the president in the UK. Lightning storms had prevented it from launching earlier in the day by the lightning storms.
A happy crowd danced and sang to live music in the rain, but the carnival atmosphere was marred by the appearance of several dozen of apparent members of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization deemed by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be a hate group.
Marching from the Amway Center chanting, many wearing Maga hats and some making white power gestures, the group was intercepted by City of Orlando police officers outside the bar. The officers spread their bicycles across the road as a barricade.
A tense standoff ended after a few minutes when the Proud Boys group turned back following a request by the police, and there was no violence or confrontation between the rival groups.
Later on, inside the Amway Center, Trump opened his one-hour, 20-minute monologue with a characteristic broadside against the hated “fake news media”.
Like a master conductor, Trump guided his audience through a familiar recital, showers of boos and jeers echoing across the arena at all the predictable moments: the Russian “hoax”, the viciousness of his perceived oppressors, the Democrats, the specter of impeachment, the dishonesty of the media during an administration he insisted was “under assault from the very first day”.
Amid a cacophony of adulation that rivaled anything seen during Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2016, one of the loudest and lengthiest cheers of the night came when Trump asked the crowd to vote on a slogan for his 2020 campaign.