Supporters’ cheers and applause ripped through the air as Vice President Mike Pence stepped onto the red, white and blue stage assembled in Brownwood.
“Well, hello Florida!” he called out to the enthusiastic supporters.
Pence’s visit Saturday afternoon was the biggest political event in Brownwood history, but its significance on the national stage is even bigger as President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are embroiled in a heated election in which the Sunshine State is highly coveted. Pence’s stop in The Villages comes with less than a month before Election Day. As Trump’s leading surrogate, Pence was trying to stir up the party faithful to action.
“It’s on everybody and the road to victory runs right through Florida,” Pence said.
Pence targeted his remarks to those in favor of law and order, veterans, freedoms from government and those craving a returning economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“So we’ve rebuilt our military, revived our economy, stood up for law and order, life and liberties,” Pence said. “And let me just say, none of that would have been possible in our first three years without the strong and consistent support of Sen. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio.”
That’s also why Congressman Daniel Webster, who introduced Pence, needed to be reelected, Pence said. Later, Pence praised Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts in leading the state against the coronavirus.
Pence also discussed Trump’s efforts, saying that his “decision to suspend all travel from China bought us invaluable time to stand up the greatest national mobilization since World War II, and it saved countless American lives.”
He encouraged those gathered to keep bringing all their enthusiasm, voicing their support, and spreading the word, saying “word of mouth” was the best path to election victory.
He voiced support for law and order, pledging to support law enforcement. He touted America’s economic reopening, noting Florida had brought back 136,000 jobs. He offered encouragement in the pandemic, saying a safe vaccine was coming before year’s end. He connected with people of faith, telling them to “pray confidently” for the right outcome.
It’s something he’s asked before. When Pence came to Savannah Center in September 2016, he asked for Villagers to “go tell people what this election’s all about.”
But there’s a greater sense of urgency now. Instead of his visit coming two months before Election Day, as it did in 2016, there are now less than two weeks until early voting begins in the tri-county area, and less than a month before Election Day.
That doesn’t leave much time to secure a state famous for being the rock upon which presidential campaigns break.
The state has, for a long time, had about as many Democrats as Republicans. With 29 electoral votes — tied for third-most overall — Florida is the only state of that size that is purple, said Susan MacManus, professor emeritus in political science at the University of South Florida. States with more, or even the same number of, electoral votes are pretty much blue or red.
Trump needs Florida to win, and Democrats desperately want it because they envision a Joe Biden victory in Florida might benefit down-ballot candidates, possibly flipping the party makeup of the congressional delegation and the state Senate, MacManus said.
Even COVID-19 only caused a small pause, or virtual shift, in campaigning. Biden visited Miami on Oct. 5, and Trump is planning a Monday event in Sanford.
But Florida elections often come down to razor-thin margins, and that’s where places like The Villages come in.
“A lot of people look at The Villages as a symbol of the older vote in Florida, and that’s a focal point of Republicans and Democrats,” MacManus said.
And Villagers vote. Most of The Villages lies within Sumter County, which consistently has one of the highest voter turnout rates in Florida. For the 2016 presidential election, Sumter came in third of the state’s 67 counties in percentage of registered voter turnout.
In 2018, Sumter was No. 1 in the general election, something Webster reminded those gathered Saturday.
“It’s not good enough. We need more,” said Webster, whose district includes The Villages. “So, pedal to the metal.”
Community members are also politically active. Between Democrats and Republicans there’s been four political golf cart parades in the last three weeks. Villagers have been featured in campaign videos, including local celebrity and World War II veteran Irving Locker, who led the Pledge of Allegiance on Saturday.
The Villages itself is an attractive stop even outside election years. Governors, U.S. senators and even two sitting presidents, George W. Bush and more recently Trump, have visited. Pence isn’t the only Republican vice presidential candidate to come, either — 2008 saw Sarah Palin in Lake Sumter Landing, while 2012 saw Paul Ryan pay a call.
But it’s not an exclusive stomping ground of Republican politicians. For instance, Biden visited in 2008. Many out-of-state reporters still think of The Villages as exclusively Republican, said MacManus, and they’re very surprised to find there are and have been a sizable number of Democrats in The Villages for quite some time. It’s just that the Democrats are more visible than in the past.
A few hours before Pence’s visit, the Florida Democratic Party hosted a virtual news conference to discuss Trump’s performance on topics concerning Florida seniors, including the coronavirus and Social Security. The speakers included former Sen. Bill Nelson, as well as Dennis Foley of The Villages Democratic Club.
Over Zoom, Foley, director in the club’s communications department, discussed local Democrats’ enthusiasm, as well as continuing efforts to get out the vote. The plan Saturday was to phone-bank, reaching out to people with vote-by-mail ballots, encouraging them to fill them out and letting them know they can return ballots via mail or secure drop boxes.
The mantra, said Foley, of Village De La Vista, is all gas and no brakes until the election.
In terms of registered voters, Sumter has about twice as many Republicans as Democrats. In 2016, Trump scooped up 49% of the vote and won the county.
But now it’s 2020, and time is running out.
“For Trump to win he needs to really energize and mobilize his core supporters so that they are just chomping at the bit to go vote,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political professor at the University of Central Florida.
In 2016 Trump lost some elements of the traditional base. However, he was able to increase support in some groups, including white senior voters.
Republicans, Jewett thinks, are just a bit nervous about the senior vote this time around. A couple of the polls in Florida have suggested Trump isn’t doing quite as well with white seniors.
That’s one reason why Trump and the Republican Party are going full throttle for The Villages, he said. They want to do at least as well as they did last time.
“And if even just a small percentage of Villages seniors who voted last time for Trump stay home or vote for Biden, that might mean trouble for Trump’s reelection prospects,” Jewett said.
And a visit from a sitting vice president can certainly energize a community.
John Temple, Sumter County Republican Executive Committee chairman, said he thinks Pence’s visit will excite Villages residents.
“It will get them to continue their hard work and motivation to reelect our president and vice president,” he said. “It will show to them the importance of this election, and the surrounding counties, because we won’t just have Sumter County residents. There will be other people who will come over. I believe it will have a resounding effect in the outcome of our area.”
And on Saturday, the crowd that greeted Pence was a big one. The area behind the Barnstorm Theater, where he spoke, was lined by golf carts, many sporting patriotic and Trump-themed decorations. The line to get in snaked around the square, while the line of golf carts stretched across the street.
Beamen LaBare, of the Village of Osceola Hills, was glad to see the turnout.
“It shows that people respect him and want to hear what he has to say,” he said.
Ken and Pat Reynolds, of the Village of Pine Ridge, waited in the golf cart line to get in.
“They’ve done an awesome job and we want four more years of an awesome job,” Pat said.
Pat said she thinks that “our enthusiasm rubs off on them, the president and the vice president, knowing that there are people supporting them.”
Not too far away, Barb Smith, of the Village of Fenney, waited in the pedestrian line.
“He knows his base, and how could I not be here when he’s so close?” she said.
Other attendees came from further afield. Lexi Owen, for example, came with her grandmother. The two are from Los Angeles, and were in the area.
“I wanted to come out here to show that the youth are supporting the president,” Owen said. “I just turned 18 and he’s going to be my first vote.”
It was exciting to see everyone out there and so energized, she said.
Now, the push is for that excitement to hold until Election Day
“I’m going to tell you folks, there’s never been a day gone by in the last three and a half years that President Donald Trump hasn’t gotten up and fought to keep the promises that he made to the people of Florida, and the people of America,” Pence said. “Now it’s our turn to fight for him. It’s on.”
Speciality Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or email@example.com.