Maryanne and Chris Lambertson at their home in Atlantic Beach, Florida on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—One of the first things Joe Bryant did when I walked into his home was to hand me his Republican Party membership card.

“I wanted to show you my bonafides,” he said, before walking me over to his living room, where we sat and talked for nearly hour. He had to tell me why he could not bear casting a ballot for former Congressman Ron DeSantis and will vote for Andrew Gillum.

Lori Gaglione, a disabilities rights lawyer who lives in Atlantic Beach joined us. A few days earlier, I had overheard Gaglione and a few friends at a Gillum event in downtown Jacksonville talking about the changing political landscape in Atlantic Beach and other beach communities. She introduced me to Bryant to illustrate her point.

“Ron DeSantis is a Trump flaky,” Bryant told me. “I respect his service to the country. He went to Yale. He went to Harvard. You’ve got to be pretty smart. But he’s an ‘I’m with Trump, anything he says goes person.’”

As Bryant, 71, sees it, Trump has destroyed the Republican Party, the one that used to nominate men like the late-John McCain as its standard bearer. Bryant was especially upset at how disrespectful Trump was towards McCain and how Republican leadership stood by and let it happen.

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“I’m sick and tired of, ‘You can only vote your party,’” he said. “If you’re a Republican, no matter what egregious thing the president says or any other Republican does, no one is called on the carpet. Are the Democrats perfect? No, they are not. I’ve just seen neo-conservative Christians who have bastardized the Bible, and it troubles me.”

As Gaglione and I walked out of Bryant’s home, she told him about the Gillum events for which she’s volunteering. He told her he had volunteered for Obama in 2012 and wanted to work for Gillum.

“Tell ‘em I’m ready,” Bryant told Gaglione. “I support him.”

We were in Ponte Vedra Beach, an unincorporated seaside community in St. Johns County, some 18 miles southeast of downtown Jacksonville. Bryant said there are more folks like him—but they aren’t willing to admit it openly.

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I’ve heard similar stories from other Republicans in Ponte Vedra and Atlantic Beach, a well-to-do, quasi-independent city that’s incorporated with Jacksonville, the largest city in Florida. It’s located in Duval County, one of northern Florida’s more conservative areas. Duval has been emerging as more purple than red in recent years, giving Democrats hope they can flip it on Tuesday. Trump barely won it in 2016. Gillum snagged the county during his gubernatorial primary thanks, in large part, to black voters. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, scuttlebutt among residents and around Atlantic Beach that Republicans frustrated with Trump are considering backing Gillum. Given that DeSantis and Gillum are locked in a tight race, any defection can help swing the outcome one way or another.

Florida may be a swing state in national elections but is very much red in many other ways. Republicans have held power here for more than 20 years. Atlantic Beach still trends conservative. Trump, as reviled as he is among centrist and left-leaning Republicans, is still very popular here, even as national trends have shown Trump’s popularity dropping with each racist, sexist tweet.

Democrats are hoping Trump’s polarizing politics will turn off enough Republicans who will either elect to skip voting or throw their support behind Gillum. Republican strategists say they shouldn’t get their hopes too high.

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“That is not by any stretch widespread in the Jacksonville area,” John Dowless, president of Millennium Consulting whose clients are mostly Republicans, said of a potential defection of Republicans into the Gillum column. “There’s just no way. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. But I am pretty confident that isn’t a widespread opinion held in that area.”

Alex Patton, a Republican strategist in Gainesville, also doesn’t believe the number of defectors will be large.

“There are Never Trumpers,” Patton said. “There is a part of the Republican Party, I think is relatively small, that are going to vote for Andrew Gillum just because they want to burn the Republican Party down and build it anew. I think there is another segment of the Republican Party that’s just gonna leave the ballot blank. Or they’re gonna write-in Mickey Mouse.”

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Gillum emerged with a five-point advantage over the former congressman in polls after DeSantis’ disastrous showing at their second debate. Though Trump is popular here, his favorability among Republicans has slipped a bit. A July poll showed it dropped by seven percentage points. A Florida Atlantic Poll published in September showed it taking another negative dip. That didn’t stop Trump from visiting the state Wednesday, with plans to return Saturday, probably because the president has a lot riding on DeSantis, as he has invested more in his success than any other candidate he’s endorsed. One could argue that DeSantis’ success or failure hinges almost exclusively on Trump.

Comparatively, Gillum is likely benefiting from early voting tallies. In Democratic-rich Miami-Dade County, local officials expect a 60 percent turnout, which would be a midterm record. Through Tuesday, early voting was up more than 160 percent over 2014, with more than 155,000 ballots cast in person. By the time polls closed Monday, more people had voted early in 2018 than had in all of 2014, according to the Miami Herald. Overall, Republicans in Florida are voting early at slightly higher rates than Democrats, but that is typical. Black voters traditionally turn out in high numbers on Election Day.

Joe Bryant at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr

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Another trend could also play a big, yet uncertain role in the outcome of the race. Independent voter registrations in Florida have seen higher increases than either Democrats or Republicans since 2016. The latest polling showed Gillum leading in double digits with that demographic. Many of the people I spoke with for this story consider themselves conservative or have switched from the GOP to become independents. That, too, has Democrats in Duval County excited.

“I have a lot of conservative friends who are supporting Gillum, but they are too afraid to put their Gillum signs in their lawns,” Gaglione said as she showed me around Atlantic Beach.

Florida isn’t “a state full of white, racist hicks,” she emphasized.

This campaign is personal for Gaglione. The last Democratic governor in Florida served in 1998. This is one of the rare, legit shots she and other Democrats have to elect one of their own. That he is a 39-year-old black man would help shake some of the negative images of Florida as a backward state concerning race.

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“Y’all up there in the north think we all hate black people down here and we’re a state full of rednecks,” she told me. “It’s just not true.”

Besides that, Americans, white Republicans and Democrats, are awakening to the reality about “how bad things can really get” with Trump, she said.

I asked why it took Trump to convince them of that possibility when black people had warned America Trump was a shitshow waiting to happen. We didn’t need to see Trump to foresee how bad things could get.

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“Yep, that’s true,” Gaglione said.

A resident of the community for more than 20 years, Gaglione says there has never been so many blue signs in people’s yards. As we drove into Atlantic Beach, there was a home to our left that had so much Trump and Republican campaign literature, it looked like wallpaper. But as we kept driving through the oak and hickory tree-lined streets, Gillum and Democratic Party signs began appearing.

“A good friend of mine is supporting Gillum,” Gaglione said. “She’s a Republican. I gave her a Gillum campaign sign, but she hasn’t put it up yet.”

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We visited that friend’s home and, indeed, there was no campaign literature on the lawn. That friend, Maryanne Lambertson, greeted us. Her husband, Chris, joined us minutes later. Each of them is supporting Gillum.

Maryanne was a lifelong Republican until she supported Obama in 2012. She has pretty much voted Democratic since. Her volunteer work with underserved children convinced her Democratic policies and principles, such as universal healthcare and the push for a shared economy, better matched her moral and political values. Chris is still a Republican and has no plans to switch parties.

He works in construction and has concerns about how Gillum’s liberal economic policies will impact business, but he would be more comfortable under a “Governor Gillum than Governor DeSantis.”

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“I just despise Trump,” he said. “I don’t agree with most of what Gillum says. I’m against the $15 an hour minimum wage. But DeSantis is Trump, and I don’t want Trump in Florida. We have Gillum yard signs in the garage but I’m not putting them up. I don’t want to attract too much negative attention from my conservative friends.”

Maryanne doesn’t share her husband’s hesitance about Gillum’s policy proposals and believes they have energized people in the state and Atlantic Beach because they are “looking for something new.”

Maryanne and Chris say they have conservative friends who are also voting for Gillum but hesitate to admit it publicly. And they have plenty of friends who are supporting DeSantis, even though “they’re embarrassed.”

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Why I asked.

“Because of Trump,” she replied.

Chris nodded in agreement.