ORLANDO Ask John Mica why he sticks by Donald Trump, amid the defections of many fellow Republicans, and the U.S. congressman from central Florida instead touts his own work on easing traffic congestion in this tourism Mecca.
Ask again about his support for Trump and the mild-mannered Mica shows subtle signs of becoming annoyed.
Mica has become adept at tiptoeing around Trump questions as his support for the controversial presidential candidate complicates his effort to extend a 24-year reign in Congress.
The race between Mica and his Democratic challenger, newcomer Stephanie Murphy, 38, could be a bellwether for Republicans who seek to support the party’s presidential nominee while maintaining a safe distance from some of Trump’s more controversial positions and alleged bad behavior.
The course of the campaign could provide clues on whether Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives in a year in which Trump has shaken his party and the political world with his bombast.
Voters in his Orlando district “don’t care about all this garbage that’s going on” in the presidential race, says Mica, as he steers the conversation to improving healthcare for military veterans, creating jobs and expanding local airports.
Mica’s re-election bid is also made unusually tough because of a newly-drawn congressional district that gives Democrats hope of a win.
Murphy has sought to use Mica’s support for Trump against him by saying that just as Mica has stuck with Trump too long, he follows Republican leaders in Congress all too often.
She ticks off Mica’s support for gun positions pushed by the powerful National Rifle Association, especially after June’s massacre in Orlando of 49 people at a gay nightclub.
Murphy has said Mica is out of step with the reconfigured district, which she said is “evenly split” and not especially partisan.
As Mica campaigns on his ability to deliver goods to his district in the form of job creation and infrastructure investment, Democrats are making sure to remind voters that he is aligned with the man who arguably is one of the most controversial major party presidential candidates in history.
Democrats punctuate that with a photo of Trump and Mica side-by-side at a 2014 ceremony celebrating the start of construction of a Trump hotel in Washington.
A MIRROR FOR THE COUNTRY
Early trends of mail-in ballots in the 7th congressional district point to a competitive race.
In Orange County, 10,975 Democrats have cast early votes compared to only 6,732 Republicans and 3,525 independents.
Orlando may be famous as the home of the fantasy land that is Disney World. But Mica’s district is a real-life mirror of America.
Its residents are politically divided, in this case about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and with a strong dose of independent voters.
Furthermore, as in other parts of the country, Latino voters in central Florida are building political muscle.
As Mica, 73, wages a ground-war that has him knocking on constituents’ doors in Orlando’s heat and humidity, he walks a fine line.
He is a grandson of immigrants who boasts of being “hard nosed” against “amnesty” for the 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally. But he suggests there could be exceptions to Trump’s promise to deport them all.
Building a wall on the southern border with Mexico, a linchpin of Trump’s campaign, should be done “where it makes sense,” Mica said during an interview with Reuters amid a lunchtime crowd of mainly Hispanic customers at the Lechonera El Barrio restaurant.
Still, as prominent Republicans offended by the tenor of Trump’s campaign, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, distance themselves from Trump, Mica stands firm, saying, “I’m pretty much a party loyalist.”
Such loyalty can come with a price, though, and Mica acknowledges, “I’m stuck with the Republican (presidential) nominee” whom he said made “vulgar, reprehensible” remarks about sexual advances on women captured in a 2005 videotape that recently became public.
But there is an upside to supporting Trump as well. Mica said some supporters want to know that he is sticking with the nominee. “These people are very passionate. They’re going to be voting,” he said.
Miriam Ramirez, a former Republican legislator in Puerto Rico who lives part-time in Florida and has been stumping for Mica, worries Trump could complicate Mica’s re-election.
Asked whether Mica’s appeal to the district’s booming Puerto Rican population could suffer because of his association with Trump, Ramirez said, “Yes, especially in lower-income families.”
Murphy, who came to the United States as a child after she and her family escaped Vietnam and were adrift in the South China Sea before being rescued by the U.S. Navy, said Trump’s “hateful and divisive rhetoric” has voters worried that he “will act on the prejudices he has laid out” if elected.
“Voters choose political leaders they believe will do the best for them but also represent the best in them,” Murphy said, challenging Mica’s support of Trump.
One thing seems certain in the closing weeks of the campaign: Mica is staying on message as he tiptoes around Trump, instead talking about the “interstate (highway) massive rebuild” and the airport in Seminole County that “had weeds growing up…out of the runway” and now supports thousands of jobs.
(Changes to ‘grandson’ from ‘son’ in 19th paragraph)
(Reporting By Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell,; Editing by Julia Edwards and Alistair Bell)