HIALEAH, Fla. — The residue of yet another tough election night for Republicans was nowhere to be found here Wednesday night as former President Donald Trump took the stage in front of thousands of supporters eager to return him to the White House.
“Just think of it — seven years ago tonight on Nov. 8, 2016, the American people delivered the greatest election victory,” Trump said. “The only one that will be more important is the one coming up one year from now.”
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His remarks came as the rest of the presidential field gathered just miles away in Miami to hold the third GOP presidential debate, an event that — like the other debates — Trump skipped, citing his commanding lead over the field. From the rally stage, Donald Trump Jr. mockingly called it the "dog catcher debate down the road." (NBC News hosted the debate.)
The main focus of the event — which was chock-full of lines that could be heard at almost any Trump rally — was to roll out the endorsement of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who also served as press secretary in Trump's White House.
"Our country has never needed Donald Trump more than it does now," she said to loud applause.
During his speech, Trump did not mention Tuesday's 2023 off-year elections, which saw Republicans lose several high profile races, including those in which Trump-endorsed candidates were on the ballot.
Trump's rally is the exclamation point on a week focused on asserting his dominance in Florida — the home turf of Gov. Ron DeSantis — who, when he launched his campaign in May, was seen as a major threat to Trump’s hold on the party. That has largely faded, and DeSantis is now in a protracted battle with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to be seen as the most viable Trump alternative, a title that functionally now means second place.
On Saturday, Trump rolled out the endorsements of a handful of Florida state lawmakers who have supported DeSantis but now back his campaign. That night, he was also the keynote speaker at the Republican Party of Florida’s “Freedom Summit” in Orlando, an event that he and his supporters dominated. And he also has a planned reception at Mar-a-Lago for top Florida Republicans on Thursday.
A University of North Florida poll released Tuesday also had Trump dominating in Florida with a 30 percentage point lead over DeSantis when the entire field is included, a margin that shrinks to 20 points when it is Trump versus DeSantis head-to-head.
“Despite historically high approval in the polls, Gov. DeSantis losing steam in his home state does not bode well for his national campaign,” Michael Binder, director of the school’s public opinion research lab, said. “Even if you wipe out the rest of the competition in a head-to-head, Trump leads DeSantis by 20 points.”
The location of the rally itself, too, is significant as Trump tries to flex his muscle in Florida, a state he now also calls home.
Hialeah is more than 90% Hispanic, and many residents either fled, or had family members flee, countries ruled by repressive strongmen, including places like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. It has become an enclave of support for Trump. Flags bearing his name line many of its streets, and campaign signs for local political candidates spotted near the rally venue included pictures of Trump, not DeSantis.
“President Trump knows our community, our struggles, and our yearning for freedom,” said Miami-Dade County Commission Kevin Cabrera, whose district includes Hialeah. “He embodies the American Dream that so many of our families seek and has a firm stance against the regimes that oppressed us.”
“Hialeah is Trump Country,” he added.
Trump acknowledged the Cubans in the audience, which drew chants of "We want Trump." While in the White House, Trump largely reversed Cuba policies put in place by former President Barack Obama, including making it harder for Americans to travel to the island nation and beefing up financial and banking restrictions.
“We have a lot of great Cubans here,” Trump said. “And no one ever did more for Americans who love Cuba than a gentleman named Donald J. Trump when he was president.”
DeSantis won his re-election bid by nearly 20 percentage points last year. But just months after that win, there were clear signs Trump was going to both overtake him in the presidential race and hijack the GOP grassroots in Florida that helped elevate DeSantis nationally.
“There is nothing more important in life than loyalty,” Patrick Hackett, a Boca Raton resident who attended the Hialeah rally, said. “I was a huge DeSantis fan, he was my guy. But he has to pay his dues. He would not have been governor in the first place without Trump’s help.”
Trump was involved in Tuesday night’s off-year elections, most notably backing Republican Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s failed bid to knock off Andy Beshear, the state's Democratic governor, but Hackett said he didn’t think those elections “matter at all.”
He also said he could support DeSantis in the future even though his lack of loyalty to Trump disappointed him.
One day after the election losses, Trump also quickly turned to unfounded conclusions that there were “irregularities” that caused Republicans to lose Tuesday night.
“We have very, very third world elections. You see that up in Connecticut this weekend, the last few days,” Trump said Wednesday on "The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show." “They found a lot of improprieties, to use a nice word.”
Trump made those claims as he continues to lie and say that the 2020 election, which saw him lose to President Joe Biden, was stolen. The rally was full of t-shirts and other apparel echoing that mistruth, including shirts that plainly stated “Trump Won.”
Other Republican candidates in the race have tried to blame Trump for a string of national election defeats over the past few years, but those attempts have not yet eroded Trump’s support with a GOP base that intensely supports him. That, however, did not stop them from once again trying to use election losses as leverage to convince Republicans the party needs a new leader.
“Last night was a sweeping loss for Republicans. It was eerily similar to last November, when the anticipated ‘red wave’ never came,” DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier tweeted Wednesday morning. “But @RonDeSantis won by 20 points and turned the swing state of Florida solid red.”
“We need a new leader that can win again for America,” he added.