By almost anyone’s political calculation, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s increasingly problematic drive for the White House will be practically impossible to pull off in November unless he can carry Florida, the premier battleground state.
Although Florida went Democratic in 2008 and 20012, Trump until recently only narrowly trailed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by a few points in the citrus state. Last Tuesday, however, a new poll from Monmouth University showed Clinton with a nine-point lead over Trump, 48 percent to 39 percent.
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Some analysts say that Trump’s biggest challenge will be to galvanize rank and file Republicans, especially white women, and somehow try to break into Clinton’s solid support among blacks and Latinos.
But there’s another problem that Trump has largely ignored until now that could tip the balance against him if he’s not careful: The fast spreading and highly dreaded Zika virus in southern Florida.
Concern within the state about the mosquito-transmitted virus that can damage the fetuses of infected pregnant women has been festering for months and is detected in Miami Beach.
The Republican-controlled Congress departed in mid-July with a $1.1 billion spending bill to fight the spread of the virus and help develop a vaccine mired in the Senate. Democrats complained that the Republicans had loaded up the measure with “poison pills” including a ban on federal spending for Planned Parenthood.
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) blamed the Democrats for blocking final action on the spending bill and holding up action by federal agencies to assist Florida. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the bill was unacceptable in its present form and blamed the Republicans for risking the health of thousands of people and new born infants.
Clinton intervened in the Zika virus crisis in early August, joining many Republican and Democratic officials from Florida in demanding that Congress cut short its summer recess and pass the $1.1 billion spending bill to help combat the spread of the dreaded disease in the continental United States.
But Trump has largely ignored the issue, essentially leaving it to Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott to handle. During campaign stops in two Florida cities August 3, Trump dodged reporters’ questions on what he would do, according to CNN.
"You have a great governor who's doing a fantastic job -- Rick Scott -- on the Zika,” Trump said. “And it's a problem. It's a big problem. But I watch and I see. And I see what they're doing with the spraying and everything else. And I think he's doing a fantastic job and he's letting everyone know exactly what the problem is and how to get rid of it. He's going to have it under control, he probably already does.”
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There is little doubt the Zika crisis could blow up in Republicans faces if they’re not careful. Just as the Republicans won back control of the Senate in 2014 in part by criticizing the Obama administration’s lackluster response to Ebola, the GOP could get hit this fall for standing in the way of Zika funding.
Gov. Scott had urged public calm, even as he and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) pleaded with the federal government to provide more resources and called on Ryan and McConnell to summon lawmakers into a special session to break the impasse over the Zika funding bill.
The disease, which is spread by mosquitoes and poses high risks to pregnant women and the elderly, already has affected Brazil, other Latin American countries and Puerto Rico, and now threatens the United States. Until recently, there were no reported cases of homegrown virus infection, in which people contracted the disease from insect bites in the continental United States.
Typically, victims here either contracted the disease while traveling abroad or through sexual contact with someone else who had been infected overseas.
But that all changed earlier this month when Florida public health officials reported a handful of cases originating from mosquito bites in the relative small, one-square-mile neighborhood of Wynwood just north of downtown Miami.
Then on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed that the Zika Virus had begun spreading beyond Wynwood, to portions of Miami Beach and beyond. That immediately sparked concern over the potential adverse effects to public health and to Miami’s estimated $24.4 billion annual tourism trade.
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Public health officials said that at least five people have been infected in the new expanded area, including two from the Miami Beach and three others who were tourists or visitors from Texas, New York and Taiwan.
The CDC has warned people against traveling to central Miami, a potentially devastating blow to the local economy. Last year was the busiest year for tourism in the Miami area, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some 15.5 million people visited the city, a 6.4 percent increase over 2014.
The Wall Street Journal reported that officials are concerned about the impact of the Zika on tourism throughout the state if the virus begins to spread. The governor announced last week that 57.4 million visitors came to the state during the first six months of the year, the highest number ever, according to the report.
Political analysts are divided over the potential fallout from the Zika crisis this fall. If the crisis gets worse before November, then some Florida voters could blame incumbent Republican lawmakers or even Trump, the party’s standard bearer.
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According to Politico, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has asked Ryan to convene an emergency session of Congress to pass a Zika bill immediately. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) is reportedly worried that Congress’s inability to act may seriously harm his chances in what is already a tough reelection campaign.
“The GOP made a fateful decision to take a long summer break without first approving the Zika funding,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. “Some Republican congressmen in Florida are paying the price. Can they somehow manage to get the bill passed now, or will the most conservative members of the GOP caucus prevail? We shall see.”
As for the impact on Trump, Sabato said that it’s possible he could be hurt in the backlash, although he has done much to separate himself from the GOP and Congress in his public image. “For all we know, he’ll denounce them,” Sabato said in an email.
Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster who advised Rubio during his presidential bid, believes that voters will be far more discerning in assessing blame in the election.
“It depends on what Republican and what they’ve done about it, and whether or not they’ve made a serious effort to try to address it,” Ayres said in an interview. He stressed that Rubio has been a leader in the fight for funding for Zika treatment in Florida.
“I don’t buy this argument that, okay, there’s a public health crisis and now they’re going to take it out on one party rather than the other when both parties are part of the problem of not moving off this issue,” he said. “People are going to make individual judgments about individual candidates.”
Ron Bonjean, a Washington policy adviser and former Republican congressional aide, argues that Trump might actually benefit from the controversy among Florida voters “by putting the blame and pressure squarely on the Obama Administration for failing to properly manage the issue.”