THE VILLAGES, Florida -- Ronald, Don and John are living the good life in this haven of Republican retirees in Florida, a city designed for the aging, with paths everywhere for golf carts and where residents have plenty of time to campaign for their president, Donald Trump.
The Villages is a pleasant, immaculately clean, fast-growing retirement town in central Florida. The average age of its 75,000 inhabitants is 71. Some two-thirds are Republican.
President Donald Trump (AFP)
One afternoon not long ago five retirees all wearing Trump pins reviewed lists of recent arrivals in the city in order to send them invitations to join Republican-affiliated clubs.
An hour’s drive to the south, in Orlando, the US president will be formally launching his reelection campaign Tuesday.
“We’re very proud,” Ronald McMahan, vice president of one of the clubs, told Agence France-Presse. “We’re proud to be Republicans, we’re proud to be with other Republicans and very proud that Mr. Trump has chosen to open his campaign here.”
Trump’s choice of Florida was no accident. If he is to win a second term in the White House in 2020, he will have to win in Florida again.
“The president is coming here because he knows this state is a tipping point,” said Dennis Baxley, a Florida state senator who described himself to AFP as the legislature’s “most conservative” member.
Retirees Ronald McMahan (R), Don Eaton (C) and Andy Bilardello, all leaders of local Republican clubs, address envelopes inviting new residents to join the clubs in The Villages, Florida; all are supporters of US President Donald Trump. (AFP)
With 14 million voters, Florida is one of the country’s most important swing states. It usually keeps the country in suspense on election night with results often decided by the thinnest of margins -- so thin that, in last year’s midterm elections, votes in three important state offices had to be recounted.
That provides a little extra incentive for McMahan, sitting with friends John Black and Don Eaton, as they address envelopes to send out dozens of invitations.
The men speak enthusiastically about life in the Disney-like surroundings of The Villages -- “the happiest place on Earth” for Republicans who retire here from all corners of the country.
“When the campaign really starts and we know who the opposition will be, the president will have a really great group here that will assist him in winning Florida again,” said Eaton, an Indiana native wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with “Victory 2020.”
His “Make America Great Again” hat sat next to him on the table.
“They share some core values that I try to protect, and that I share,” said Baxley, whose district includes this and many other retirement communities in central Florida.
“That is to protect things such as faith, family, freedom, opportunity and life itself.”
“They still believe in American exceptionalism,” he added, “and they’re interested in preserving that.”
Pro-Trump merchandise adorns the recreation center in The Villages, Florida, where leaders of local Republican clubs meet to organize and support the re-election of President Donald Trump. (AFP)
These retirees are impervious to the criticism of Trump as sympathetic to white supremacists, or for apparently obstructing the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
It’s all “fake news,” they say.
“I know that some people are a little bit taken aback by Mr. Trump‘s sometimes abrasive nature,” McMahan said.
“But maybe we needed that, maybe we needed somebody to stop being so polite, so gentlemanly, and tell it the way it is.”
In a tweet Wednesday, the president bragged that 74,000 people had requested tickets to see him launch his re-election campaign from the Amway Center, the Orlando arena with a capacity of 20,000.
Orlando, like Florida’s other big cities, is a Democratic island in a sea of red -- the color that represents Trump’s Republican Party.
Living in this same part of the state are not only retirees but large numbers of Puerto Rican migrants, who despise Trump for what they saw as his insufficient response to Hurricane Maria.
But while Trump is unpopular among Hispanics nationwide for his handling of the migration crisis, those in South Florida include some of his fiercest supporters.
Most are Cuban immigrants who will support the candidate who promises the toughest line against any leftist governments in Latin America.
Trump has successfully courted this group, which has grown to include many Venezuelans and Nicaraguans since Trump toughened US sanctions against the governments of Havana, Caracas and Managua.
Given the political landscape here, the Democrats face an uphill battle in their bid to reverse the 2016 election result.
A leader in that battle is former candidate for governor Andrew Gillum, a rising Democratic star who lost to his Republican rival by a mere 33,000 votes last year. Gillum is leading an enormous campaign to recruit a million voters in the state.
Bill Nelson, a former US senator from Florida who also narrowly lost to a Republican in November, believes that only Joe Biden can lead the Democrats to victory.
Joe Biden (AFP)
“Joe Biden will beat Trump in Florida,” he flatly predicted to ABC News.
“More than anything, (Democrats) want a candidate that can beat Trump.”
A Quinnipiac opinion poll in March had Biden defeating Trump in Florida by a substantial 49-to-35 point margin. And this week, another survey from the same group gave Biden a 13-point edge over Trump nationwide.
“Yeah, we heard that last time,” said Eaton. “The polls were so wrong, so wrong.” (AFP)