By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Sunday’s horrific massacre at a gay club in Orlando may have deepened the chasm between an increasingly divided electorate in Florida — and the nation — but how that will play out at the ballot box remains a mystery.
Within hours of the early Sunday morning murders at Pulse nightclub, the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history, elected officials and political candidates started flooding social media and inboxes with mixed messages.
The missives, still pouring in, run the gamut from demands for a ban on assault weapons — like the one used by Omar Mateen, purchased days before the attack — to a call-to-arms for a tougher stance against homegrown terrorists, such as Mateen, who was shot dead by police after gunning down 49 clubgoers, many of them young, Hispanic and gay, and injuring more than 50 others.
On Monday, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who has repeatedly insisted he will not seek re-election this year after making a failed bid for president, told a conservative radio show host he was reconsidering that decision, in light of the tragedy.
When asked about the impact of the Orlando shooting on the 2016 elections in Florida, some political consultants hung up quickly, saying it was too soon to discuss matters so crass.
Others are as divided as the electorate about how candidates should treat the tragedy. Some even suggested that, by November, voters may already have forgotten about the Orlando killing spree, which President Barack Obama called “an act of terror and an act of hate.”
“As horrifying as this is, as terrible as this is, human grief has sort of a span of time where it affects people. It doesn’t diminish the horror of this thing to note that, as a country, we have a short attention span. We always have,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant and strategist who is one of the founders of the NeverTrump movement.
But others insist the anger — and grief — won’t dissipate before voters cast primary ballots, or even by the time the general election rolls around in November.
“This is going to be fresh on people’s minds” during the state’s Aug. 30 primary elections, said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.
The mass murder certainly won’t fade away for LGBT or Hispanic voters, who made up the majority of those killed or injured at the club.
“It’s going to be a wake-up call,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith, governmental affairs director for the advocacy group Equality Florida.
Smith, who is running for a state House seat in Orlando, predicted that Sunday’s massacre — and the spotlight it focused on the region’s close-knit LGBT community — will force Tallahassee lawmakers to pay attention to issues, such as anti-workplace discrimination laws, important to gay voters.
“They’ve only used their time to antagonize the LGBT community with hateful, mean-spirited bills like the bathroom bill, like the adoption discrimination bill,” Smith said. “This is a wake-up call that hate and bigotry still is alive and well against the LGBT community, and the leadership in Tallahassee can no longer bury their heads in the sand.”
But for gay and Hispanic voters, the attack “will bring a heightened sense of awareness to an electorate that’s already paying attention,” said Democratic political consultant Christian Ulvert.
“Our world view has changed,” said Ulvert, who is gay and Hispanic.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings, people are focused on honoring and paying tribute to the victims, Ulvert said.
“But in days ahead, the question will be asked, what do we do from here. It’s not just going to be by words. It’s going to be by acts. Different communities are going to react to how leaders responded, who recognized this tragic event and paid respect to the victims, as they should,” Ulvert said. “From pain and darkness, action and hope will come. No question. And that’s how it’s going to be woven into the 2016 election cycle.”
Florida’s revamped political boundaries, comprised of new legislative and congressional districts, inject an element of uncertainty into both the primary and general elections. The new maps are the result of the voter-approved Fair Districts constitutional amendments, which banned districts from being drawn to favor incumbents or political parties.
As a result, a number of congressional and legislative seats in what were once districts comfortably controlled by Republicans are now up for grabs.
Florida — which has approved more than 1 million concealed-weapons permits — has a long history of being friendly toward guns and has been a testing ground for some of the National Rifle Association’s model legislation.
But the new electoral map, combined with what other experts predict will be a lingering effect of the history-making mass killing, could broaden support for some types of gun control, such as bans or limits on assault weapons, even in a state where the NRA’s clout has reigned supreme.
“It’s going to be a more positive, more acceptable issue position to say that you want to do something about assault weapons than it’s ever been,” MacManus said. “There can be such an uproar that these candidates have to address it. It’s going to be an issue that’s more elevated than it would have been in the past in a primary, especially a Republican primary.”
Women voters could play a significant role in the upcoming elections, especially in competitive primaries in swing districts, according to MacManus.
“The youth of the people who were killed was a big issue. … And much of the coverage has shown grieving mothers, grieving family members, and that kind of coverage resonates with people,” she said.
But Wilson argued that Democrats have never been able to make headway on gun control in Florida, or elsewhere, no matter how appalling the circumstances leading up to the debate on the issue has been.
“Democrats say this is all about gun control, and Republicans say this is all about Muslims. Now, the important thing to remember is that our society has largely made up its mind on guns. A tragedy like this, just speaking in cold political terms, doesn’t move the needle,” he said. “If people look at this as a competition between security versus gun control, security wins every time.”