As Donald Trump essentially locked up the Republican presidential nomination late Tuesday, Florida GOP leaders began facing a decision none of them expected to be making a year ago: Line up behind the real-estate mogul's White House bid, or figure out how to win around him in the fall.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the last Republican given much of a chance of beating Trump at the Republican National Convention this summer, dropped out of the race Tuesday night after a crushing loss in Indiana. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who lagged far behind, followed suit Wednesday morning —- clearing the field for Trump.
Shortly after Trump's victory Tuesday, Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia issued a statement calling on the party to get over a contentious primary that once included U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Now, we must all come together as a party and complete the task at hand, which is defeating Hillary Clinton in November," Ingoglia said. "A Clinton presidency would be disastrous for this country, our military, our debt, our freedoms and the Supreme Court."
Joe Gruters, co-chairman of Trump's campaign in Florida, said Wednesday the party has already started to gel behind the billionaire developer, who will now lead the GOP's quest to put together 270 electoral votes in the general election. Florida is likely to be crucial to that effort. If Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, simply wins the states that have voted for her party in every election dating back to 1992, a victory in Florida would put her in the White House.
"People will come together," Gruters said. "It's always difficult after an election to see your guy go down."
Gov. Rick Scott long ago said the GOP should back Trump, and some candidates running for other offices began calling for party unity on Wednesday. Carlos Beruff, a U.S. Senate candidate whose outspoken style has drawn comparisons to Trump, called on his fellow Republicans to back the nominee.
Like many trying to rally the party around Trump —- whose slashing attacks on presidential rivals helped spark a particularly contentious race —- Beruff zeroed in on the possibility of a third straight presidential win for Democrats after President Barack Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012.
"Beating Hillary Clinton in November should be the first goal of all Republicans," Beruff said. "Donald Trump is the nominee of our party, and I am committed to voting for him and supporting him so that we can take our country back from the liberal policies of Obama and Clinton."
But other Republicans were balking at the possibility. Members of the #NeverTrump movement that sprung up on social media in response to Trump's growing popularity insisted that "never means never" —- and that they would not vote for Trump in November.
"I expect enough Republicans of conscience and principle will not vote for Donald Trump that it's going to make it very difficult to win the presidency," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Florida who has been a leading voice against Trump.
Wilson said he also expected some Republicans, especially in swing districts, to be hesitant about lining up behind Trump. While some Democrats are already cautioning that Trump could have hidden strengths in a general election, the nominee still polls poorly among women and Hispanic voters.
"You're not latching onto a campaign that has coattails in a possible direction for most candidates. ... There will not be the rally effect that you normally get with a presidential candidate," Wilson said.
Democrats were already seeking to capitalize on the dynamic of Trump at the top of the ticket. Congressional candidates sent out emails Wednesday trying to fundraise off the GOP front-runner, or get in some shots.
Congressman Patrick Murphy, one of two Democrats running for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, raised the possibility in a fund-raising letter of a Republican-controlled Senate confirming a Trump Supreme Court nominee. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to tie a slew of Republican candidates running for Murphy's U.S. House seat to the GOP presidential candidate.
"Inflammatory rhetoric cost Republicans in 2012, now with Trump at the top of the ticket, Brian Mast, Rebecca Negron, and the host of Republican candidates won't be able to escape their divisive leader who has offended women, minorities and veterans across the Treasure Coast," said Jermaine House of the DCCC.
State Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican running for the Florida Senate in a strongly Republican district, said he thought much of the anger behind the #NeverTrump movement would begin to cool with time.
"I do think people have to look at the big picture, too, and realize that governing is a crucible that will temper anyone's posture," he said.
Baxley also said candidates down the ballot might try to learn things from Trump's unorthodox campaign, whether joining him in touting the fact that they're investing in their own campaigns or shying away from referring to "endorsements" by that name.
And at least one prominent Democratic strategist noted parallels to a Florida election in 2010, when an outsider businessman clashed with the Republican Party establishment before winning the top spot on the ticket: Gov. Rick Scott.
"He rightly gambled that #NeverScott would go away after the primary, and the establishment would quickly come together," strategist Steve Schale wrote in an open letter to fellow Democrats.