At a Florida poll, voters on both sides hope to send Trump a message

Voters see the local and state races as a referendum on the Trump presidency.
Voters see the local and state races as a referendum on the Trump presidency.
Image: Ephrat Livni
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Early in the morning in Sarasota, Florida today, the streets are virtually empty. John Turner, who is volunteering at his 40th election since 2005, has already voted and is greeting his fellow citizens.

Turner’s got a pretty low-key gig. At 7 AM, at the back entrance of the First Baptist Church on Main Street, only eight people are lined up to vote. Inside, there are as many volunteers as there are voters.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, voters trickle in. They are Democrats and Republicans, and some non-partisans. Almost everyone says they see their local election as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Not a single voter this morning mentioned the contentious gubernatorial race between Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, and Ron DeSantis, a Republican with staunch support from Trump. Instead, the election is widely characterized as an opportunity to send the president a message. “Today is an opportunity to give voice to how we feel,” says Mariama Levy, founder of Verdi Consulting, an accounting firm headquartered in Virginia.

She is an immigrant from Sierra Leone, cheerful and determined, a self-described conservative who voted Democrat today. Mariama has flown in from Virginia just to exercise this right and is accompanied by her husband of 16 years, David Levy. “He’s Jewish,” she tells me.

“We’re a really mixed couple,” David interjects with a laugh. “I’m a registered Republican,” he adds. “But Trump is really bringing everyone out of the woodworks and racism is really rearing its ugly head. The president is encouraging it and we can see that with his responses to the shooting in Pittsburgh and the Charlottesville rally.” Trump’s refusal to condemn white nationalists who marched in Virginia last year, and what David considers a tepid initial response to terrorism at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last month have driven a wedge between David and his party.

“It’s not about black or white,” Mariama explains. “It’s about living in a society that’s encouraging fringe ideas. The ugliness of racism right now is really bad. I hope that we can get past it and I believe in America’s ability to correct itself.” She says she’s concerned for the safety of their children, who are 11 and 13, but has hope that Americans can get past their differences. “Republicans are really missing an opportunity to get immigration votes by making people feel they are not wanted here,” she concludes.

Fellow voter Martin Tuttle, who calls himself a “political wonk” and starts the day at 5 AM by watching Fox News, agrees with the Levys on one thing. The midterm elections will send a message about the Trump presidency.

Unlike the Levys, however, he supports Trump entirely. “His vision for the country is spot-on,” Tuttle says. He argues that that the president is misunderstood. “He’s not a politician. He’s a businessman,” Tuttle says. “Trump turned our country completely around. He’s doing textbook economics—cutting taxes, cutting regulations, letting it flow. He’s running the country like a businessman.” What some people don’t like about the president, according to Tuttle, is that he’s not a smooth talker. “He’s a New York type of guy. Trump tells it like it is.”

Tuttle is accompanied by his friend, a former New York City firefighter who responded to 9/11. The former fireman doesn’t want to share his name but is open about his frustration with the nation’s political situation. “I’m tired of the elections,” he says. “I’m ready to watch sports again.” He admits feeling alienated by the Democratic party: “Whatever happened to the Democrats? They used to be for working, middle class people, jobs, unions. Now I don’t even know what they stand for.”

What bothers him the most about contemporary liberals is that they seem too eager to call everyone a racist and a homophobe, he says, and they are alienating Americans with this approach. Both he and Tuttle complain about Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and blame Democrats for creating what they believe to be a false scandal. Three women accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault in his high school and college days.

Charles Smith, who says he’s “very much pro-Trump,” agrees that he was motivated by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. “What they did to that guy on the Supreme Court is criminal.”

Meanwhile, Diana Truka says she voted Republican today because “that’s what she believes in,” though she doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation. She is more expansive about her feelings on Democrats, whom she accuses of slandering Donald Trump, and promises that she won’t act the same way if her local race disappoints.

Most voters I spoke to in Sarasota support Republicans. Not all are equally adamant about their allegiance to the president or their party, however. Dawn Mays, for example, says she’s not very opinionated and votes Republican because that’s how she was raised. If Democrats sweep the state elections, she will embrace her representatives. “One love, baby, one love,” she jokes.

Her husband John says he is upset about the political process. “Moving forward, this country owes it to itself to change their political ads. Politicians need to say what they stand for and not attack the opposition. We could take all the billions of dollars spent on campaign ads and put them to good use.” Contention over elections have nearly driven John to disengagement, “I’m over it,” he says. “I’m to the point where I don’t want to vote at all.”

Only one woman, who asked to remain anonymous, a retired business executive wearing a checked pink and white sheath dress, sounds pleased about US politics today. She says she voted for women in every local election in which they ran, and was just glad to see so many good female candidates on the ballot who feel they can and should run for office. “That’s what America is all about,” she says.

Despite the many signs calling on voters to support Gillum (there were no DeSantis posters) and to vote for constitutional amendment four, which would restore voting rights to certain convicted felons, the issues driving votes in this election appeared not to be local at all.