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Florida Republicans Pitch State as Model for Elections, Expanding GOP Appeal

LAKE CITY, Fla.—Florida Republicans are pitching themselves as a model for Republicans across the country on how to hold elections, handle the coronavirus pandemic and expand the GOP’s appeal to a broad swath of voters by emphasizing freedom and casting Democrats as socialist.

More than a dozen local Republican activists gathered here on a recent day wondered aloud how they could make sure Pennsylvanians, Michiganders and Georgians had free and fair elections.

“We can only do Florida?” asked Eileen Morilleau, a former business owner in this small town in northeastern Florida, when her GOP county chairman, Hunter Peeler, said that he hoped Florida’s 2020 elections would serve as a model for the country. Mr. Peeler responded that the Republican National Committee has a new election-integrity committee, and that perhaps that might be the best vessel by which Republicans could make recommendations to other states.

While five states flipped from red to blue in the 2020 presidential race, Florida stayed in the Republican column, with former President Donald Trump slightly improving his performance here compared with 2016. Florida also boasts a culture that Republicans, including potential 2024 presidential candidates, say they want for the rest of the country, citing its relatively smooth 2020 elections and the lack of a mask mandate in public to curb Covid-19’s spread, thanks to a GOP governor who speaks out against what Republicans often refer to as a “liberal, woke mob.”

“If there’s something that I’ll never, ever give up, it is freedom,” Ms. Morilleau said.

Democrats say GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state had one of the largest Covid epidemics last summer, should have heeded most public health experts and acted more decisively to promote social distancing and mask wearing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly said that mask-wearing is one of the most simple steps Americans can take to protect one another from the virus. In Florida, mask-wearing has been advised but not required by state mandate.

Through Wednesday, Florida ranked 29th for cumulative Covid cases and 26th for cumulative deaths per 1,000 population, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

Linda Jones said the choice to wear a mask in public is a big reason why she supports Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Photo: Joshua Jamerson/The Wall Street Journal

The importance of freedom from Covid restrictions and the deep-seated belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen in key states by Democratic bureaucrats—which many Republicans see as part of a broader conspiracy on the left to shut down dissenting opinions—animated many party activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., last weekend and during interviews with Florida Republicans in this GOP stronghold shortly after it.

Wendi Jennings said she joined the Columbia County, Fla., GOP because of her newfound interest in pushing other states to process their votes before Election Day. Florida allows for ballots to be processed up to 22 days before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Local authorities were allowed to begin even earlier for the November election due to the pandemic.

“It’s just common-sense governing,” Ms. Jennings, a food scientist, said. “If Florida can do it and get it right, there’s no reason anyone else can’t.”

That view hasn’t caught on with some Republican-controlled state legislatures, notably in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which didn’t allow most processing of mail ballots until Election Day. Proposals to change that before last year’s election stalled in both states.

Democrats, including President Biden, and some Republicans, say it wasn’t just Florida’s elections that were free and fair, but in all states. Election and law-enforcement officials have repeatedly said they saw no evidence of widespread election fraud. Federal courts up to the Supreme Court ruled repeatedly against Trump-supported cases aimed at changing the result, which Congress has certified.

Linda Jones, a retired registered nurse, said one of the biggest reasons she identified with the Republican Party message was because she agreed with Mr. DeSantis’s decision to enforce minimal restrictions on social gatherings and let mask wearing be a choice. “Freedom is a big part of it,” Ms. Jones, 78 years old, said, though she struggled to think of what else freedom meant besides not having to wear a mask.

Charles Hart, the Republican Party chairman in Orange County, Fla., home to Orlando, even predicted more people would move to Florida following how Mr. DeSantis had kept the state humming. “We’re open for people’s freedom,” he said. “People are safe, but people are able to have a life.”

Mr. DeSantis, whose state had one of the largest Covid epidemics last summer, called Florida an ‘oasis of freedom.’

Photo: Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/Zuma Press

Republicans routinely point to Florida as an example of where the party is thriving most. Mr. Trump won Florida by 3 percentage points, up from his 1.2-percentage-point margin in 2016. Republicans hold 16 of the state’s 27 U.S. House districts, after ousting incumbent Democrats from a pair of South Florida seats.

In Miami-Dade, Mr. Biden was undercut by relentless GOP attacks claiming Democrats would bring about socialism, an effort aimed at Latinos who make up about two-thirds of the population of Florida’s largest county. The rest of Mr. Trump’s improvement came mostly from outlying areas outside big cities, like Lake City.

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Christian Ulvert, a longtime Florida Democratic strategist who advised the Biden campaign in the state, said Republicans saw their socialism messaging work best in Florida but it also helped in parts of Texas and California with large Hispanic populations.

“Republicans successfully used the fears of the pandemic and the measures that were being implemented to put a face and a feel to socialism, however wrong it was,” Mr. Ulvert said.

But, he said if Mr. Biden is able to get most Americans vaccinated and the nation’s economy and way of life returns to normal before the midterms, the anti-freedom and socialist monikers would stick less to Democrats. And he noted Republican attempts to brand Democrats as socialist doesn’t always work, pointing to the failed attempt in Georgia to affix the moniker to now-Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff during two Senate runoff races there in January.

“I think that type of messaging works with a lot of people, but not necessarily with everyone,” said Julianne Thompson, a Georgia Republican strategist who was a member of the 2020 Trump campaign’s Women for Trump advisory board.

Eileen Morilleau wants other states to process ballots earlier to get results sooner.

Photo: Joshua Jamerson/The Wall Street Journal

Within the GOP there are signs the freedom messaging can pay dividends. Mr. DeSantis, who called Florida an “oasis of freedom” during his CPAC speech, came in second place behind Mr. Trump in a conference straw poll of attendees’ preference for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

“If you’re not from here, I don’t know why you’d want to leave here,” he said. “But when you do, and you engage in the battles ahead…hold the line.”

—Alexa Corse and Anthony DeBarros in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Joshua Jamerson at [email protected]

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