PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- Democrats hoped to score major wins in Florida in 2018, with an influx of new voters from Puerto Rico fuming over President Donald Trump's tepid response to a ravaging hurricane and a diverse Latino population alarmed at his polarizing immigration policies.
But while Democrats won widely last November, Florida Republicans pulled off tight wins in a battleground state that's famous for them, keeping the governorship under Republican control and flipping a Senate seat long held by a Democrat.
The victories gave Trump a powerful pair of allies for his reelection campaign as well as confidence that his attention to Florida is paying off. Although he won the White House by narrowly capturing key Rust Belt states in 2016, he has spent more time in Florida than any other state since taking office.
Democrats are increasingly nervous that their statewide losses here, and Trump's focus on the state for 2020, have exposed a clear weakness in their efforts to drive up the Latino vote.
"Republicans were able to defy the national blue wave in Florida because they out-hustled the Florida Democratic Party and Florida Democratic candidates in getting to the Hispanic voters," said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster based in the state who specializes in Latino voting patterns.
"The Democrats make a mistake when they think they can just say the words 'Trump' and 'immigration' and think that wins the argument," said Tim Murtaugh, Trump's campaign communications director.
Trump is already hiring staff, collecting supporters' cellphone numbers at his rallies and building a more sophisticated campaign operation than he had in 2016, when he eked out a 1% win over Hillary Clinton.
If Trump can keep Florida, he can overcome potential losses in Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, where Democrats rebounded in 2018 after Clinton lost them two years earlier.
"There are lots of pathways to 270 electoral votes," said Bill Stepien, a senior advisor to the Trump campaign. "That pathway is a whole lot easier when it includes Florida."
Trump peppers political operatives with questions, according to a Florida Republican who speaks with him regularly at his Mar-a-Lago retreat. Which elected leaders will help him? How many voters will his Venezuelan policy attract in Miami? Has his support for Israel's hard-right government won over Jews in strongly Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties?