(CN) – On a breezeless Florida afternoon, just days before the midterm elections, thousands of men and women wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats and American flag memorabilia gathered outside an arena near Ft. Myers.
The event was organized to promote the Republican candidates running for office, most notably former congressman Ron DeSantis, who is running for governor, and U.S. Senate challenger Gov. Rick Scott. But the roughly 8,000 attendees really only came to see one man: President Donald Trump.
One of those potential voters, standing in the hot sun awaiting entry to the event, was palpably excited about the opportunity to see the president. He even wore a homemade hat festooned with fake Cheetos, a nod to a derisive term used by the some Trump opponents.
Mike Gilfedder, a 55-year-old from Ft. Myers, said immigration reform and the country’s debt are the issues personal to him.
When asked why he supports DeSantis for governor, Gilfedder said simply, “Trump supports DeSantis and DeSantis supports Trump.”
“The key for me is supporting Trump,” he added. “DeSantis is not as important to me. It is less what DeSantis can do in the state of Florida than what Trump can do for the state of this country.”
In the swingiest of swing states, issues critical to the state are taking a backseat to national politics.
And out of all the state’s races, the gubernatorial race is a microcosm of the midterm election season with record-breaking fundraising, massive voter turnout and the looming presence of Trump.
Many times, the candidates themselves mirror the divisive, and sometimes vicious, nature of the electorate.
Florida’s gubernatorial race catapulted to national importance once the polls closed in the August primary.
DeSantis, a former three-term congressman, won an upset in the Republican primary, pivoting off an endorsement by Trump earlier in the year and beating Adam Putnam, the state’s well-known, highly-funded agricultural commissioner.
Andrew Gillum, who became mayor of Tallahassee in 2014, surprised many pollsters and political writers by leaping over four other well-funded candidates, including former Rep. Gwen Graham, daughter of popular former Gov. Bob Graham. He enjoyed an endorsement of Bernie Sanders early on. He could make history by becoming the state’s first black governor.
The differences between the two candidates could not be starker.
DeSantis, a product of the Tea Party movement, repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and rails against illegal immigration. Gillum has backed Medicare-for-all and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The two debates between the candidates have been all-out, verbal fisticuffs.
Gillum has attacked DeSantis for lacking a clear vision for the state, especially on healthcare issues, and being a “Trump yes-man.”
DeSantis has countered by tying Gillum to some of the more controversial statements of the activist group Dream Defenders, and reminding voters of an FBI investigation surrounding Tallahassee city hall. (Gillum maintains he is not the focus of the investigation.)
And then there are the charges of racism.
In an interview on Fox News the day after the primary, DeSantis said Floridians shouldn’t “monkey this up” by electing Gillum. Neo-nazi groups have also made numerous robocalls throughout the state attacking Gillum. (DeSantis has strongly condemned the calls and defended his earlier statement as innocuous.)
In addition to parroting Trump on national issues like illegal immigration and criticizing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, DeSantis has also piggy-backed on Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure over the state’s booming economy. In appearances around the state, DeSantis has praised Scott for bringing in millions of jobs and warned voters that Gillum would reverse the upward trend.
Tony Mineo, 55, traveled to the Trump rally on his motorcycle along with two members of his local chapter of the Defenders Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club. Mineo and his friends wore bikers’ cuts with thin blue line patches and the American flag.
For Mineo, a former police officer from Ft. Lauderdale, the state’s booming economy was a deciding factor in who to support for governor. He went without a raise for eight years during the recession, he said, but credits Gov. Scott with keeping taxes down during that time and bringing in new jobs to help the economy.
“Now that the economy has turned around, DeSantis will just keep that going,” Mineo said. “Gillum gets in, you talk about raising business taxes to 41 percent, and you can kiss all that goodbye.”
Mineo warns that raising taxes will push Florida natives like him to other states while the newcomers will make the state more expensive like New York or California.
“The problem is people are moving out of high-tax states coming down here, and they voted Democratic their whole lives,” he said. “They can’t afford to live there and then they vote the same way when they get here. It makes no sense.”
But Gillum and his supporters contend the state’s economy has not worked for everyone.
Just minutes from sugar sand beaches and the elegant headquarters of the Church of Scientology, Clearwater’s North Greenwood neighborhood lays hidden from tourist brochures. North Greenwood used to be the bustling heart of the city’s African-American community, but slowly devolved into a high-crime area dotted with vacant homes. Crime has decreased in recent years, but many of the 6,000 residents still face economic woes.
Within smelling distance of the meats smoking at Big Jim’s BBQ, Sandra Luster ticks off the issues she wants Florida’s candidates to address: healthcare, Medicare, criminal justice reform. The 57-year-old is disabled and rents an apartment in a Section 8-approved duplex.
“They’ve taken [money] from the poor and given it to the rich,” she said. “We need to take it back. … Poor people can’t even afford to provide school supplies to their kids.”
When asked about her preferred candidate for governor, Luster’s face scrunched up.
“I don’t like any of them to tell you the truth,” she said. She is leaning toward Gillum, but is concerned about the FBI probe in Tallahassee.
Down the street, Jameka Evans knows exactly who she is voting for.
“Gillum!” the 27-year-old with red and black hair shouts.
“Even though we are from the hood, we have a chance to change some things,” she said.
A mother of three, Evans lamented the state’s “stand your ground” law, which recently led to the death of a 28-year-old black man and father of two after an altercation in a nearby gas station. Gillum wants to repeal the law.
“We are scared to walk down the street, because of that gun law,” she said.
Evans planned to vote later that day at one of the city’s early voting sites.
“I’m going to Facebook Live it,” she said with a broad smile. “I got a lot of followers that watch me. Maybe if they see me going to vote, they will too.”