By Letitia Stein
PALM HARBOR, Fla. (Reuters) – An immigrant to the United States, Suzanne Vale took no offense at Republican President Donald Trump’s tweet this week telling Democratic congresswomen they are free to “go back” to their ancestral homes if America is not to their liking.
She disagrees with critics who accuse Trump of race-baiting with his attacks on the four women of color.
“I don’t care what you are – what religion, where you come from,” said Vale, 61, a Trump supporter from England who also voted for Democrat Barack Obama, America’s first black president. “If you believe the same things we believe, you are welcome.”
Vale’s views were quietly echoed Thursday night around white-clothed tables at an Italian restaurant during the monthly meeting of a local Republican club in Pinellas County, Florida, the largest county that swings between the political parties in presidential elections in America’s largest swing state.
A day after a crowd at a raucous Trump rally in North Carolina chanted “send her back” about one of the Democratic women, Somali-born U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, these Republican voters in Florida focused their agenda on a discussion with their local sheriff about traffic and avoiding tickets under a new state law that banned texting while driving.
The group of suburban Republicans, mostly around retirement age in collared shirts and slacks, showed none of the hostility to the news media common at Trump’s rallies and welcomed a Reuters reporter’s questions about the political maelstrom swirling after what Elise Kay, 61, called the president’s latest tweetstorm “kerfuffle.”
“Our president has an unfortunate habit of distracting with tweets,” Kay said. “It’s just silliness. But the economy is not silly. It’s doing great, and I am afraid if we don’t re-elect the president, that will stop.”
Democrats and some Republicans have criticized Trump’s attacks on Omar and fellow U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley as racist, along with denouncing the subsequent rally chants. Republican support for Trump, however, rose by 5 percentage points to 72% after his weekend tweetstorm, a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll showed.
Sitting across the table from Kay, retired Postal Service worker John Keller, 58, lamented how the president’s statements were often blown out of proportion, though he said he would not have used Trump’s exact words.
He said the congresswomen known as “the squad” use their own inflammatory rhetoric against Trump, calling him a fascist and at times refusing to refer to him by his title of president.
“It’s always, ‘the president should take the high road.’ But anybody in Congress should also take the high road,” he said. “What I’d really like to see happen is both sides stop this and take care of business.”
‘EVERYTHING IS TRUMP’S FAULT’
Pinellas is one of four battleground counties that Reuters will report from through the November 2020 election to better understand the states set to play an outsized role in picking the next president.
Trump won Pinellas in 2016 by about one percentage point, flipping by a razor-thin margin a county that had twice voted for Obama. The county’s voting rolls currently show almost an even split in registered Republicans and Democrats, as well as a large number of independents.
Tim Bryce, 65, a freelance writer who penned a column about the controversy and shared it with the local Republican group’s Facebook page, was disheartened by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives’ vote on Tuesday to condemn Trump’s tweet as racist.
“You mean we haven’t got better things to do than talk about this?” he recalls remarking to a friend watching the news headlines at a cigar shop. “We should be talking about infrastructure. How about correcting the immigration laws?”
He thinks it has become a knee-jerk reaction for Democrats to accuse Trump of race-baiting. “They are always going to accuse him of being a racist, a xenophobe, divider-in-chief – and so on and so forth,” Bryce said.
“Everything is Trump’s fault,” said Kathy Corbin, 66, who sat at another table at the group’s meeting. “If he said, ‘air is free,’ they would limit air. It’s sad.”
Debbie Buschman, who posted an invite for the gathering on social media, tried to tune out the controversy as it escalated this week. She said she expected the details would only leave her feeling “angry with what I’m hearing from both sides.”
Buschman, whose Mexican ancestors sought political asylum in the United States, said she did not share her party’s rightward lurch on immigration attitudes under Trump.
Although she voted for Trump in the last election, Buschman, 50, said she was weary of his ongoing personal attacks and open to looking at a Democratic alternative in the November 2020 election.
“I might consider it,” she said, “if it was the right candidate.”
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)