Donald Trump apparently has done more than energize just the Republican base. In Florida anyway, he may be helping to nudge angry Democrats to the right.
The fact is, Florida Republicans are today celebrating numbers that dramatize the overwhelming sea-change in the mood of state voters: Seven of the state's 67 counties have flipped from Democratic to Republican since January 2015.
They credit more than Trump's "take America back" message. They point to anger over Congress' deafness, Obama administration policy, and hard work at the grassroots level.
The seven counties include Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Hardee, Holmes, Pinellas and Washington.
“The grassroots leaders of the Republican Party of Florida have been working overtime over the last year and a half getting this state ready to defeat Hillary and elect Republicans up and down the ticket in November, said Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "I have always maintained that a strong Republican Party with a strong grassroots infrastructure is the key to winning elections. ... The Republican Party of Florida would like to congratulate these county leaders for all of their hard work and dedication."
Here's a look at the numbers:
Baker: January 2015: 6,116 (R); 6,600 (D); 1,218 (NPA). 3/23/16: 6,707 (R); 5,916 (D); 1,403(NPA)
Bradford: January 2015: 6,464 (R); 7,116 (D); 1887 (NPA). 3/25/16: 6,871 (R); 6,608 (D); 2,238 (others)
Columbia: January 2015: 14,120 (R); 15,390 (D); 5,246 (NPA). 3/23/16: 15,671 (R); 14,876 (D); 6,402 (NPA)
Hardee: January 2015: 4,386 (R); 4,899(D); 1,466(NPA). 3/23/16: 4,780 (R); 4,723(D); 1,837 (NPA)
Holmes: January 2015: 4,179 (R); 5,592 (D); 1,176 (NPA). 3/23/16: 5,017 (R); 4,714 (D); 1,200 (NPA)
Pinellas: January 2,015: 221,035 (R); 2,25,487 (D); 1,56,081 (NPA). 3/23/16: 225,976 (R); 225,957 (D); 178,687 (NPA)
Washington: January 2015: 6, 240 (R); 6,495 (D); 1,561 (NPA). 3/23/16: 7,087 (R); 5,848 (D); 1,910 (NPA)
"It's been incredible," said Nick DiCeglie, chairman of the party in Pinellas County. "Just since the March primary we have 2,065 new registered Republicans. Compare that to the Democrats' 1,232 in the same time period. I'm telling you, we've got momentum, we're not going to stop, we're propelled by the electorate -- we've heard them loud and clear."
DiCeglie said when he started as local chairman in December 2014, one of his top priorities was flipping Pinellas from blue to red. But Democrats had a 6,000-voter lead and it looked virtually un-doable. But he said Ingoglia encouraged him to dive into his grassroots game "and since May we've done a lot of direct mail and micro-targeted independent voters. We're focused. ... When we first announced at a meeting that we were less than 1,000 voters away from our target, a huge cheer went up. Everybody's pumped," he said.
Pinellas County has always been closely divided among the parties -- a swing county. The fight will be for those without a party affiliation. DiCeglie emphasized there's still time before June to recruit more good people. "We know we have to up the ante" with the candidates we put up. I think we're doing it. We have a great team and great executive leadership."
Other local party chairmen, particularly those in the smaller counties, picked up their largest head of steam at county fairs.
"We had a booth at the Columbia County Fair," Chair Buddy Hines told Sunshine State News. "We started with a deficit of 768 voters and I remember the day perfectly that we pulled ahead -- it was President's Day, the 12th of February. Now we have an 805 majority."
Hines said he has a dedicated group of about 25 volunteers, but voters this year are an easy sell. "Sure, some of this has to do with Trump, but Democrats are disgusted with their choices," he said. "When all you have to vote for is an avowed socialist and a closet socialist, you're ready to change."
In rural North Florida, Baker County Chair Nick Mercorella emphasized that his county has been Democratic since before the Civil War, but it's been an in-name-only membership for several decades. When the Dems left the Dixiecrats, he said, they never reregistered. "These folks are still very religious and conservative ... that's how they vote. Trump was a catalyst for them to change," he said.
Mercorella's team floated a straw ballot at the Baker County Fair in August. "Even with 16 Republicans still in the race, Trump got half the votes of everybody who voted." Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has her work cut out in this rural county. Some 4,000 Baker Countians voted Republican in the straw poll; 1,699 voted Democratic, and mostly for Bernie Sanders.
Mercorella doesn't buy the notion that Florida Democrats will come out of the woodwork to defeat Donald Trump if he is the GOP nominee in the General Election. "I think I can guarantee you, working class Democrats are going to vote for Trump."
In the Panhandle's Washington County, Chairman Malcolm Gainey said his troops are working hard, are proud of their accomplishment to sign up new GOP voters, but he admits Trump's message has resonated in North Florida in particular. "Actually, our citizens have voted Republican for years, they just didn't change their registration. ... Four out of five of our county commissioners are Republican ... We're pretty happy it looks like we're going to elect a Republican sheriff for the first time in Washington County history."
Candidates, Gainey says, are too often conservative in their heart but liberal on the ballot, which makes no sense. Right now he's focused on getting candidates to switch to "where they belong."
Massachusetts native David Dodge, chairman in Bradford County, echoed Gainey: "We were 5 percent Republican when I started this job 25 years ago," he said. "But we've gone slowly, one voter at a time" to get people to switch to where their hearts lie. Our people vote Republican and this time I expect they'll vote Republican more strongly than ever."
Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant did not return SSN's phone call Friday and the FDP Tallahassee office was closed.
Ingoglia said he feels good about the effort the RPOF team up and down Florida have made. "We remain committed to registering new voters to the GOP during this election cycle, while training new volunteers and leaders who will join us in paving the road to the White House. ..."
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith