The Great GOP Migration: How South Florida became a shadow capital for Trump conservatives

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Supporters of then-President Donald Trump in Miami after the 2020 election. Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

  • As conservatives flee Blue State hostility and lockdowns, South Florida has become a GOP power base.

  • The GOP social calendar orbits Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, while revelers party mask-free at swank house parties and penthouses.

  • Greater Miami has lured California tech and right-wing news. Florida’s politics is meanwhile shifting Red.

  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Brittney Reed needed to get in front of Donald Trump and it had to happen fast.

It was the eve of two special elections in Louisiana, and Reed–the head of the Louisiana GOP–knew an endorsement from Trump could make the difference. So, she had secured a last-minute ticket for a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago and flew to Palm Beach to make her case in person.

It was mid-March, and Mar-a-Lago had partially closed a section of the club after several workers tested positive for COVID-19. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who became a national figure for loosening coronavirus restrictions, had booked the club for the evening and his event went on as planned.

When DeSantis and Trump finished their remarks, Reed made a beeline for the former president to discuss the two Republicans she wanted in Congress: Julia Letlow, the widow of congressman-elect Luke Letlow, who had died from COVID complications, and Claston Bernard, a former LSU track star.

Trump turned to DeSantis and others around him.

“Ron, what do you think of this race here?” Trump said, according to sources with knowledge of the event. (Representatives for Trump, DeSantis, and Bernard did not respond to Insider’s questions about the encounter.) “Is it possible, what do you think?”

The crowd agreed that Letlow was a good bet, while DeSantis said Bernard’s seat “wasn’t winnable” because the district was heavily Democratic. Trump had praised Letlow before, but it wasn’t widely known his removal from social media platforms had silenced the former president’s preferred megaphone. “How am I going to do this endorsement if I do it?” Trump asked.

The Atlantic Ocean is seen adjacent to former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, in 2018 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Put a press release out. We’ll get it everywhere,” Reed said.

The following day, Trump released a statement promoting Letlow’s candidacy. She won easily.

Mar-a-La-Go-Go

South Florida has long been a haven for those fleeing frigid winters and high taxes. Once the pandemic began, a jet set of monied Manhattanites, tech entrepreneurs, and untethered influencers restless from Blue State lockdowns flocked to Miami en masse — helping turn Greater Miami into a conservative power base.

Once Mar-a-Lago went from being Trump’s “Winter White House” to full-time residence, the Republican Party’s social calendar has increasingly orbited his beachfront Xanadu.

“Republicans used to go to the Upper East Side to raise money but most of those people aren’t even in New York anymore. They’re in their second home in South Florida,” said Adam Weiss, a Miami-based public relations executive. “Now that New York completely shut down, that drove a whole new group of people to come down here.”

So far this year, Trump’s members-only resort has hosted high-dollar soirees for DeSantis, Utah Senator Mike Lee, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Alabama Senate candidate Lynda Blanchard.

“I have to say, I’m getting calls from senators, they all want our endorsement and I’m being very selective,” Trump said at the Noem gathering, which donors paid $4,000 to attend.

Party honchos even relocated their confabs to South Florida to ensure a Trump appearance.

The American Conservative Union switched its annual CPAC event from suburban Maryland to Orlando in February to avoid limits on large indoor gatherings. It was there that Trump made his first public remarks since leaving office.

Former President Trump’s supporters gather near his Mar-a-Lago home on Feb. 15, 2021. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Republican National Committee picked Palm Beach for its spring donor retreat in April and set a portion of the weekend at Mar-a-Lago to appease Trump after officials angered the former president by using his image in its fundraisers.

When Air Force One touched down in West Palm Beach on Jan. 20, hundreds of MAGA-hatted faithful lined Southern Boulevard gripping blue “Trump 2020” flags and hand painted “Trump Won” signs as the former president’s motorcade whizzed by.

It was a far friendlier atmosphere than he had lately experienced in Manhattan, where raucous protesters would pack Fifth Avenue, at the foot of Trump Tower, whenever Trump returned from Washington.

“It’s a wealthy place and there’s not many places where there are so many heavy hitters who are Republican,” Weiss said.

A protest in front of Trump Tower on March 8, 2021 along New York’s Fifth Ave. John Smith/VIEWpress

“Isn’t it so nice that Miami is open?”

Power lunches in Palm Beach still reign among Trump’s inner circle. Rudy Giuliani is known to hold court at The Breakers and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been seen dining at La Bilboquet, a Worth Avenue outpost of a high-end Manhattan eatery that opened in February. The afterparty crowd for Mar-a-Lago events often hits Cucina Palm Beach where Kimberly Guilfoyle, who purchased a $9.7 million mansion with her boyfriend Don Jr. in nearby Jupiter, has been spotted dancing on the tables.

The love for Trump spreads 70 miles south of Mar-a-Lago to Miami, a city that never sleeps thanks to many coronavirus restrictions lifting months ago.

They pack into Carbone, one of the restaurants dotting Collins Avenue in South Beach. Or Socialista, a swanky lounge attached to Cipriani Restaurant, where transplants from San Francisco start-ups rub shoulders with maskless models and the occasional conservative influencer, before moving on to an all-night party at a South Beach penthouse or at the Star Island mansion of plastic surgeon Leonard Hochstein and “Real Housewives of Miami” star Lisa Hochstein.

“Isn’t it so nice that Miami is open?” one tech founder, who called himself a COVID refugee, said. “I’m so over COVID.”

But the hottest reservation in Biscayne Bay is Joia Beach, a Mykonos-inspired beach club with views of megayachts and the Miami skyline.

There’s currently a three-month wait on Open Table but VIPs like Akon, Maluma, Adriana Lima, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, and Tiffany Trump have snagged tables to nibble on Tasmanian trout crudo ($20), Turkish octopus ($30), and winter fennel and crab salad ($28).

It helps to be on a texting basis with one of the restaurant’s partners. Others have tried more unusual measures.

“People have swam in,” Marko Gojanovic, a Joia Beach partner and real estate agent, said. “There are people who have tried to pull jet skis in areas we can’t see. People have paddled up to us. Thank God we have security.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Kimberly Guilfoyle at a Trump campaign rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport in 2020. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Coronavirus is still raging in Florida a year after the pandemic began. The state has had more than 2 million cases and 33,000 deaths, with a quarter of the state’s total occurring in Miami-Dade County alone. But South Floridians–old timers and new arrivals alike–have largely shed their coronavirus concerns like a chunky sweater at the beach.

No one shames people for forgoing masks at hotels and restaurants or packing house parties. Mar-a-Lago remains a mask-free zone.

Contrast that to what happened in the northeast last winter, when a video of a Queens Republican club’s Christmas party, featuring a maskless conga line, gained 3.7 million views online and drew torrents of condemnation. Manhattan Young Republicans were so spooked by the media they held their winter gala at a secret location in New Jersey.

Washington has become less hospitable to Trump-friendly conservatives too. American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp said he’s had several hostile encounters with progressives in public. He and his wife, former White House communications aide Mercedes Schlapp, are eyeing a move south.

“I was eating a salad last weekend at a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria and was berated by a woman who called me an ‘a–hole,'” Schlapp said. “Usually you have to cut someone off in traffic to earn that kind of title but here you just have to be someone recognized for being a Republican.”

The Great Republican Migration

South Florida has been beckoning conservatives for years, but locals say the influx has accelerated since Trump took office in 2017.

Supporters of outgoing US President Donald Trump await his return to West Palm Beach, Florida. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Fox News is still headquartered in Manhattan but other right-wing outlets have proliferated along the Gold Coast. Newsmax, the Boca Raton-based cable channel, is adding a news bureau in Miami later this year. Conservative radio host and Palm City resident Dan Bongino is one of several commentators trying out for the slot that Rush Limbaugh anchored from Palm Beach until his death earlier this year. Far-right podcaster Bill Mitchell has been broadcasting his YourVoice America program from Miami since 2019. And MAGA influencer Maggie Vandenberghe fled California for Palm Beach this winter.

The party’s donor class soon followed. Billionaires fleeing Blue State progressivism decamped to Miami’s most exclusive islands. Palantir co-founder and Republican megadonor Peter Thiel plunked down $18 million in September for a Venetian Islands chateau where MTV’s “The Real World: Miami” was filmed. Founders Fund partner Keith Rabois chided San Francisco for being “massively improperly run and managed” before dropping $29 million on an estate near Thiel in December, while Blumberg Capital’s David Blumberg blamed “poor governance” in California before making his cross-country journey.

“Miami should be the easiest and cheapest city in the country for somebody to start a business,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said. “I want to make sure everyone around the country knows that Miami is here to help you grow, not keep you from growing.”

A political shift is underway

Florida’s transformation from swingy purple to deeper red would have been unthinkable two decades ago when George W. Bush won the state and the presidency by a minuscule 537 votes. Southeast Florida swelled more than a million people since 2000 but it is far less of a Democratic stronghold than it used to be.

US President Donald Trump at Florida’s Lake Okeechobee in 2019, with Governor Ron DeSantis and Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio. Nicholas Kamm / AFP

President Barack Obama won Palm Beach County by 24 points and Miami-Dade by 16 points in 2008 en route to statewide victories during both presidential campaigns. But Trump won twice by making up ground in Democratic counties.

Florida Republicans knocked doors for months boosting turnout while the Biden curtailed canvassing during the health crisis. The Trump campaign also accused Democrats of supporting socialist policies — a message that resonated among Cuban and Venezuelan immigrants who fled brutal left-wing regimes.

“Democrats were flat-footed in dealing with accusations of socialism in commercials where people had lived under the boot of socialism,” Dan Gelber, Democratic mayor of South Beach, said. “I don’t think we responded aggressively enough.”

Latino voters in Miami-Dade also feared economic damage from school and business closures more than getting sick, according to voter data Equis analyzed.

Beachgoers play volleyball on Dec. 19, 2020 in South Beach. DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

“As bad as the coronavirus pandemic was in terms of caseloads and deaths, apparently a lot more Floridians were concerned with the economy and that certainly helped Trump,” Aubrey Jewett, University of Central Florida political science professor, said.

Trump’s presence in Florida has benefited the state’s ambitious officeholders. Ron DeSantis has become a 2024 frontrunner in several polls after being one of the first governors to reopen his state. Marco Rubio has a clear shot at re-election and is again seen as a likely presidential candidate.

While the coronavirus has sped up the conservative influx, it’s not clear what will happen once the pandemic recedes. New arrivals could stay in South Florida now that remote work has become more prevalent and there’s less of a need for face-to-face meetings.

There’s always been a stigma about Miami but people told me in their New York circles that stigma has been lifted,” said Reid Heidenry, a Sotheby’s agent who sold over $100 million in real estate in the past year, said. “In the business world, it’s now socially acceptable to live in a place like Miami Beach.”

Whether a COVID refugee or long-time fixture of Miami Beach, there’s one thing that’s indisputable across party lines.

“Freedom tastes pretty good,” Zangrillo said at a house party.

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