Political News

Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis navigate Trump in Florida's hotly contested races

Posted September 20, 2018 2:40 p.m. EDT

— The Republican candidates in Florida's hotly contested races for governor and US Senate are experiencing first hand the challenges of navigating politics in the age of Donald Trump.

The President's false claims last week about the death toll in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria led Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate, and gubernatorial nominee and former Rep. Ron DeSantis to issue statements breaking with Trump's assertions. Now, a source tells CNN, Trump is angered by both candidates' efforts to distance themselves from him.

The episode highlights the difficult position Scott and DeSantis are in. If they completely embrace Trump, even in his most controversial moments, they risk alienating key swing voters who are turned off by the President's statements. If they go too far in breaking with Trump, they could anger the President and as a result his core supporters, who they need to turn out in full force in order to win in Florida, where statewide elections can be incredibly close.

At the same time, Scott and DeSantis' Democratic opponents have tried to tie them to Trump during the course of the campaign. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson's campaign released a Spanish language ad prominently featuring photos of Trump and Scott together. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, responding to DeSantis saying electing Gillum would "monkey this up" if the black Democrat was elected, told Fox News, "It's very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump."

Both Scott and DeSantis have attempted to turn the focus of their campaigns back to local issues and their own individual records. Scott just wrapped up a multi-city bus tour where he promised to "Make Washington Work," while DeSantis is touring schools across Florida touting his education plan, which puts a heavy emphasis on school choice. But attempting to avoid the topic of Trump is no easy task, in part because of the President himself.

Last week, Trump tweeted that "3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000."

His false claims were quickly met with pushback from the two Republicans in Florida, which has a large Puerto Rican population and where thousands from the island are estimated to have relocated after Hurricane Maria relocated after Hurricane Maria

Scott, who was already keeping Trump at an arm's length during his campaign, tweeted, "I disagree with @POTUS, An independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rosselló agreed." Scott was referring to an independent study that was conducted by researchers at George Washington University, which led governor of Puerto Rico to raise the death toll from Hurricane Maria to an estimated 2,975 from 64.

Even more surprising was a statement from the DeSantis campaign, which did not mention Trump by name but clearly argued against the President's claim. DeSantis won his primary in part by casting himself as the most pro-Trump candidate.

"Ron DeSantis has always worked to help the Puerto Rican community, both on the Island and here in Florida," said Stephen Lawson, communications director for the DeSantis campaign. "He doesn't believe any loss of life has been inflated. Ron is focused on continuing to help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida succeed."

A source close to the White House who is familiar with the President's thinking told CNN that Trump is unhappy with both candidates. The source says Trump is "upset" that DeSantis broke with him on the tweet, although the source downplayed the long-term damage that this might have on the two's relationship, likening it to "a parent and a child fighting."

The source said Trump has not closed the door on the relationship, adding that DeSantis still has time to "right the ship." Trump, the source said, feels like he pushed DeSantis over the edge in the competitive primary, endorsing DeSantis early and appearing with him for a campaign event and that DeSantis is "ungrateful" for his support. This person indicated that Trump immediately honed in on the DeSantis comments last week, saying, "He reads everything."

The source also indicated that President Trump is also not happy with Gov. Scott's crafty avoidance of appearing with Trump on the campaign trail yet as he makes his own bid to replace Democrat Senator Bill Nelson. "The President doesn't appreciate that Governor Scott doesn't seem to want to appear with him at public events," the source said, adding that Trump has privately complained that Scott will ride on Air Force One but won't appear in public with him.

A spokesperson for the White House did not return a request for comment.

For their part, Scott and DeSantis are brushing off the notion there is any friction between them and the President.

At an event outside Orlando on Wednesday, DeSantis laughed off the idea that his relationship with the President is on the rocks.

"I don't think anything has changed," he said.

When asked if he has spoken to the President recently, DeSantis replied, "I'd prefer to keep that private."

Scott finds himself in bit different situation as it relates to Trump. Scott has won statewide in Florida on two different occasions and did not face a difficult primary that required Trump's support. His campaign pushed back on the idea that governor is distancing himself from the President.

"The Governor talks frequently about issues important to Florida with the president and appreciates his support," said Chris Hartline, the director of communications for the Scott campaign.

Scott says his relationship with Trump has overall been beneficial for Florida, leading to breakthroughs in federal funding for environmental projects and preventing off-shore oil drilling off the Sunshine State's coast.

"If it is good for Florida, I am going to agree with the President. If it is bad for Florida, I am going to oppose it," Scott said in an interview with CNN on Monday.

Scott did not rule out appearing with Trump at some point before the election. He just made it clear it would be on his campaign's terms.

"If somebody comes down and wants to support what I am doing, then I welcome them," he said.