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As Hurricane Relief Stalls In D.C., Trump To Rally Base In Florida Panhandle

Kimbrely Brock sits on the steps of a friend's trailer that was destroyed by Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., in October. President Trump holds a political rally in Panama City Wednesday.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Kimbrely Brock sits on the steps of a friend's trailer that was destroyed by Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., in October. President Trump holds a political rally in Panama City Wednesday.

President Trump will hold his first 2020 Florida political rally since the 2018 elections on Wednesday, and he's doing it in the Panhandle, the heart of his base in the state.

But the region is facing setbacks because of a federal funding shortfall after Hurricane Michael last fall that threatens to dampen enthusiasm.

"As much as Bay County votes Republican, we don't need a political rally right now," said Bay County Commissioner Philip Griffitts, a Republican. Trump's rally will be in Panama City, which is in Bay County. "We need some good news from the federal government," he said.

Florida is crucial to Trump's reelection chances in 2020. Without Florida, there is virtually no path for his victory. Trump's campaign and Republicans in the state are feeling good about their chances. After all, in a wave year for Democrats in 2018, Republicans were able to win the governorship with a candidate who ran as unapologetically pro-Trump.

In that campaign, Republican Ron DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum, a Democrat endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist. That campaign is expected to serve as an example for the president's messaging strategy to win the state, trying to paint any Democrat who runs against him as a "socialist."

That anti-socialist message, the campaign believes, will appeal in South Florida to those with roots in Venezuela and Cuba. Trump has backed that up as president with hard-line policy stances toward the governments of those countries.

Still, this is Florida. On average, it has been the closest state in the last five presidential elections on average, and Trump only won the state by a little over a percentage point in 2016.

While many of his supporters don't blame him for the lack of funding for Michael recovery, he can't afford to lose any support in a state this close, especially in the Panhandle, where he got about 10% of his total statewide vote out of the 18 counties in that area.

And rallies like Wednesday's are key to organizing and drumming up support.

Lack of funding

Several Florida lawmakers are saying they feel as if Michael has become the "forgotten" storm.

That's despite Trump declaring after Michael hit, "We're doing a lot, more than anybody would have ever done."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency last month touted that it had provided $1.1 billionin funding to the Panhandle with almost $1 billion going directly to survivors. Officials on the ground, however, are frustrated with the agency's denial of claims and the slowness of aid. Bay County has seen 33,000 denials, for example.

"The bureaucracy of FEMA is very impressive, and that's not meant to be a compliment," Griffitts said. "The processes and bureaucracy of the federal government has been painful at times."

Bay County has not been reimbursed for some $250 million in debris clearance. That total may be small by Washington standards, but it accounts for about three-quarters of the county's annual budget.

Many of the businesses in the tourism-heavy area haven't come back, with just weeks before Memorial Day, the unofficial kickoff of the summer season.

Tyndall Air Force Base, a major economic force in Bay County, was also hit hard by the storm. Housing on the base was damaged as were more than a dozen F-22 fighter jets. Construction at the base halted last week because of a lack of funding. Trump is expected to get a briefing at the base.

Congress has yet to pass supplemental disaster-relief funding that would get the president's blessing.

A relief package for areas affected by Michael, the California wildfires and other disasters passed the House, but the bill stalled in the Senate. The Senate had a deal on funding, but Trump balked at increased funding for Puerto Rico, whose leaders have been hotly critical of the president after Hurricane Maria. The president sees the government there as inept and untrustworthy stewards of the funds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has tabled any measure until he's certain the White House will sign off.

"I don't know who to blame," Griffitts said, adding that he doesn't necessarily blame Trump, but there's "no excuse. Quit playing politics."

Griffitts also noted that one in seven kids did not return to school, a number he said he uses as a proxy for a population drop of about 15 percent. That translates to about 27,000 people no longer living in Bay County — and not enough people for jobs available.

That could certainly have an electoral effect if those voters moved out of state, or if they choose not to vote.

The importance of Florida and the Panhandle to Trump

The president's path to reelection remains a narrow one, and he needs Florida's 29 electoral votes. Trump won the state by just 1.2 percentage points, or about 113,000 votes.

Florida has been decided by an average of less than 2 percentage points on average since 2000, and Democrat Barack Obama won it twice. But Republicans see it trending their direction after the 2018 midterm wins. Not only did they win the governorship, but they also flipped a U.S. Senate seat.

The Panhandle is very important to Trump's chances. Remember that Trump went there to rally the base during a tough political time – four days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which he was heard bragging about assaulting women.

In 2016, Trump wound up running up the score in the 18 counties in the region, getting 22,604 more votes, or about a 5% increase, out of them than GOP nominee Mitt Romney had in 2012.

Looked at another way: Those votes were about one-fifth of Trump's total statewide margin over Hillary Clinton.

Bay County went for Trump with 71% of the vote. That was one of the highest percentages of any large county in the state. Bay also saw the second-largest increase in Republican votes in the Panhandle from 2012 to 2016. Trump got about 5,300 more votes than Romney four years earlier in Bay, a 9% increase. Across Florida, only Santa Rosa County saw a bigger GOP vote increase.

Facing a reelection bid with Democrats fired up to run against him, Trump is going to need to persuade virtually every one of those voters to come out to support him again.

"The president knows the importance of northwest Florida," Griffitts said. "We are a red voting district, and I would hope that he could deliver some good news."

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Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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