FORT MYERS, Fla. — President Trump rallied Republican voters in Southwest Florida Wednesday night in a bid to make sure the critical section of the state delivers victories for GOP candidates in next week's midterm election.
Republicans Rick Scott, who is vying for the U.S. Senate, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is running to replace Scott as governor, are deadlocked in races with their Democratic opponents and can only hope to prevail next week if the deep-red counties in Florida’s Southwest and Interstate 4 corridor turn out in big numbers.
Trump’s appearance Wednesday at the Hertz Arena in Fort Myers, deep in Florida’s southwest region, attracted thousands of supporters and generated the kind of enthusiasm that Republicans hope will draw out GOP voters on Tuesday.
“If you want high taxes and high crime, vote for the Democrats,” Trump told the crowd. “If you want low taxes and low crime, vote Republican. It’s really a choice between results and resistance.”
Trump has toured the country in an effort to shore up Republicans in the face of what some analysts say is a blue wave that could drown out dozens of GOP candidates. In Florida, both Scott and DeSantis need as much help as Trump can deliver.
Polls show DeSantis slightly, but persistently trailing, Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum, the charismatic and progressive mayor of Tallahassee who in recent weeks has faced allegations of corruption that he has denied.
Scott is essentially tied with Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent who has held the seat since 2000.
“Rick Scott is one of the best governors in Florida history,” Trump said as he introduced Scott to the crowd. “He’s considered one of the best governors in the country, and if elected, he’ll keep the Florida boom in full swing.”
Trump called DeSantis “a patriot” who would preserve Florida’s booming economy and support veterans and law enforcement.
Trump in recent days has trashed Gillum, who is under a state ethics probe for accepting money and other perks from lobbyists, as well as an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer. DeSantis has used that to his advantage.
“Is Southwest Florida Trump country or what?” DeSantis asked the crowd. “I’m the only candidate who ain’t gonna raise your taxes here in Florida, and I’m the only guy who can credibly say I’m not under investigation for corruption.”
The crowd chanted "Lock him up!" a familiar refrain at Trump rallies that was first used against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The southwest region has held an affinity for Trump since his presidential campaign. It helped propel Trump to victory in 2016 by providing a hefty margin of GOP votes that compensated for less robust support for Trump, or outright opposition to him, in other parts of the state.
The state’s diverse voting pattern has typified Florida elections in recent years as Southeast Florida, Orlando, and Tallahassee have turned increasingly blue and the once-red state has turned increasingly purple.
Lee County, home to Fort Myers, voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. Trump earned nearly 59 percent of the vote, compared to about 38 percent who backed Clinton.
In the state’s nearly solid blue southeast region, voters acted in reverse. Broward County picked Clinton over Trump, 63-35 percent.
Both parties know Tuesday’s election in Florida will come down to turnout of base supporters in their respective counties, rather than trying to pick up independents or undecided voters.
Former President Barack Obama will hold a rally in Miami in an effort to get Democrats to vote, and other party luminaries, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have traveled the Sunshine State in support of both Gillum and Nelson.
The Southwest, however, remains the GOP’s not-so-secret weapon.
In Fort Myers, the 7,100-seat arena was filled to capacity, and large crowds who couldn’t get tickets to come inside stood outside waving signs and cheering for the president.
Many people arrived in the middle of the night and camped out for a chance to get a ticket or to secure an early place in line in order to find the best seat.
“I’ve always read the rallies are so much fun, and I said, 'We are so going, if he gets anywhere near us,'” Reese Ponsane, who left her home in neighboring Port Charlotte at 4 a.m., told the Washington Examiner. “It has totally fulfilled every expectation, mainly because the people are so excited and so happy, and you can just literally feel the love.”
The arena seats showed a sea of red hats and T-shirts emblazoned with Trump’s name and “Make America Great Again” logo.
“I love the president, he is the best thing that ever happened to America,” David Sapato, of North Fort Myers, told the Washington Examiner as he walked into the arena.
Sapato was a longtime Democrat and Obama supporter, but now he favors Trump, he said, because he lowered taxes, reduced government regulations, and took on China’s unfair trade practices.
“I got here at 2:30 this morning,” said Sapato, who was sporting a Trump hat.