FLORIDA — Quiet Dunedin, Florida, by the Gulf of Mexico, has the look and feel of a small town. But in the weeks before Election Day, the voters living here may have some of the most important voices in the entire country.
Dunedin’s Pinellas County and the rest of central Florida are a diverse mix of demographics and party affiliations. Voters here sometimes tip the balance of an election toward the state’s more Republican northern areas, while other times they side with Florida’s Democratic-leaning southern counties.
As many here like to say, all roads to the White House go through Florida.
The state’s national role is especially true this election season: Florida is a must-win for Republican Donald Trump. In addition, Trump is a key factor in so-called down-ballot House races across the state that will determine the makeup of the next Congress.
Several congressional races in central Florida — like many across the country — have turned into a referendum on Trump.
Ellen, a lifelong Republican in Pinellas County who asked that her last name not be used, lives in Florida’s 13th Congressional District. She’s exactly the kind of voter the party fears this election season. Describing herself as a Christian and a conservative who is unconcerned by Trump’s faults, Ellen is more focused on the disorder within the Republican Party that resulted in a failure to fully support its nominee.
«I think it’s sad, really, that we don’t have enough backbone in our leadership to stand up and say we’ll work on that later, but for now let’s make sure [the Democrats] don’t get control,» she said.
Ellen says she will leave the Republican Party after this election. In the meantime, she has no intention of voting for anyone down-ballot «unless they have acknowledged, publically endorsed or said they’re going to vote for Mr. Trump. If you’re not going to vote for your nominee, I’m not going to vote for you.»
Her vote in the election for Florida’s open Senate seat will go to Marco Rubio, who continues to support Trump. But in the race for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, where incumbent Congressman David Jolly has refused to endorse Trump, Ellen plans to vote for a third-party candidate.
«If you’re not going to vote for your nominee, I’m not going to vote for you. David Jolly — I’m not voting for him,» she said.
Republican members of Congress have to walk a fine line this election season as they share a ticket with Trump. Jolly has never endorsed his party’s 2016 nominee and openly criticized some of Trump’s more problematic policies and comments, including his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants.
«I have bared my soul to this community on the issue of Donald Trump for a year now, and at great political risk and at a risk of losing political support within my own party,» Jolly told VOA at a town hall on veteran’s issues with Pinellas County voters. He says he understands and respects the concerns of Trump supporters who will refrain from voting for him because of the non-endorsement.
«I’d ask they reconsider, but I do understand,» he said.
Republicans like Jolly, who come from more moderate districts with a mix of voters, may get linked to Trump anyway and will be the most vulnerable on Election Day, says John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
«They are facing voters who have the strongest distaste for Trump among Republican elected officials, and so they may actually be hurt by Trump even while they don’t embrace it,» Hudak said.
According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, 22 Republican seats are rated as tossups, with either party having a competitive shot at winning. Jolly’s seat is currently rated as leaning slightly toward his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist.
Trump has been a running theme in the race between Jolly and Crist, who was once the Republican governor of Florida but became a Democrat in 2012. The two men have traded campaign ads linking each other to Trump, including a Crist ad that photo-shopped Jolly’s face to make it appear he had met and shaken hands with Trump, a meeting that never occurred.
Jolly fired back, noting the Florida 13th District is «the only race in the country where the Democrat is tied politically and personally to Donald Trump,» referring to an 18-year span in which Crist was linked to Trump through fundraisers and golf tournaments.
At an opening for a campaign office in St. Petersburg, Florida, Crist dismissed those allegations. «I’ve had a lot of people fundraise for me. He was a supporter, and that’s it,» he told VOA.
Now a strong supporter of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Crist said the way Trump has comported himself during the campaign is «just disturbing and awful.»
Walking the line
In another part of central Florida, the contest between first-time Democratic candidate Stephanie Murphy and longtime Republican Congressman John Mica in the 7th Congressional District is a more typical example of how each side deals with Trump.
In races nationwide, Democratic candidates are pushing voters to look at how far their Republican opponents have gone in support of Trump.
«The way the national campaign is playing out in this district, it’s given us an opportunity to talk about the incumbent’s record on a variety of issues,» Murphy told VOA as volunteers worked the phones at her Orlando headquarters. That approach has included a Murphy ad linking Mica’s voting record on women’s health issues with some of Trump’s more controversial statements about women.
Mica has said he supports Trump as the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, but has condemned some of his policies and comments.
Republicans like Mica face a difficult challenge, Hudak says.
«They cannot completely throw themselves away from Trump — if they do that, they risk alienating that Trump base, which Republicans need in order to win,» he said. «At the same time, the refusal to disavow endorsements of Trump or disavow Trump’s words means that it’s harder to win people in the middle, it’s harder to win moderate Democrats and others, and so they are really stuck between a rock and a hard place.»
Murphy says the Trump attacks themselves are not a feature of her campaign, but they do provide an opportunity to make an argument with voters in a district evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independents.
«If you stick with your party nominee, either you’re putting your politics and your party above the people and your principles, or these are your principles,» she said.
«She’s attacking him solely because of who our presidential nominee is, and she’s not attacking him on his votes or his support for the central Florida community,» Mica supporter Nick Primrose told VOA at one of Orange County Republican Party’s field offices.
Mica is making the case for his re-election based on local issues, including a history of bringing infrastructure and transportation projects to central Florida instead of tying his fortunes to the national discussion about Trump.
«He is a man who gets stuff done for central Florida and they just kind of forget that he is associated with the Republican Party,» Primrose said about his volunteer efforts talking to voters about Mica. «People don’t ask about whether or not he supports Trump, they just want to know what he’s doing for them locally.»
Ultimately, the right approach to Trump can only be proven on Election Day, when the results will reveal the shape of the next Congress and the future of a Republican Party seeking a way to hold itself together.
«They’re hoping that this thread-the-needle strategy is the best way to not irritate or anger anyone,» Hudak said. «It’s unclear whether it’s going to work.»