It’s the norm for Republicans to paint themselves as the Trump-iest of candidates in GOP primaries.
But two Democrats vying for Florida governor are taking a twist on the Trump train, with smear campaigns linking each other to a president reviled by left-leaning voters deemed crucial for a primary election victory.
The feud between Jeff Greene, a billionaire real-estate investor who has dumped at least $22 million of his money into the race for governor, and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who has built a ground game throughout Florida, comes as voters are already casting ballots in the Aug. 28 primary.
While the five Democratic candidates in the race all have made Trump their whipping boy, Greene and Levine have taken the presidential pugilism to a new level.
Greene and Levine both are wealthy, self-made entrepreneurs who live in South Florida, and both take great pains to emphasize their humble origins.
Levine made friends and enemies during his two terms as Miami Beach mayor, where his abrasive style put him at odds with critics and where he drew heat for dissing journalists and scientists.
Levine —- who recently snagged the endorsement of his hometown paper, the Miami Herald —- boasts of having made significant progress on LGBTQ rights, supporting an increase in the minimum wage, combating corrupt cops and achieving a host of other accomplishments during his tenure as mayor.
But naysayers contend many of his claims are unfounded, such as one controversial issue highlighted in a recent Greene ad, dubbed “Latrine Levine,” that sparked a slugfest.
As mayor, Levine’s city spent $500 million to install pumps as part of an effort to address climate change and offset the “king tide” phenomenon flooding South Florida streets. But some scientists later blamed the pumps for dumping fecal matter into the shores off South Beach. The analysis prompted outrage from Levine, who called the report “sloppy science” and disparaged the Herald for its reporting on the issue.
Capitalizing on the controversy, the Greene ad includes footage of sewage flowing from pipes and accuses Levine —- “a bullying egoist” —- of “turning Biscayne Bay into a cesspool.”
Levine’s campaign has demanded the ad be taken down, saying the pictures of the pumped-out poop came from locales as far away as China and Russia.
Meanwhile, Levine immediately punched back with an ad condemning Greene for heaping praise on Trump, who happens to be Greene’s Palm Beach neighbor.
“I know Donald Trump. He’s a great guy,” a smiling Greene, speaking to Fox Business News days after Trump was elected nearly two years ago, says in the ad.
The Levine ad drew a stinging “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” response from Greene’s campaign, which released a web ad depicting Levine as a Trump acolyte.
“The president’s done a very good job,” Levine is pictured in the ad saying in a Fox News Radio interview recorded a year ago.
Greene, who made his entrée into Florida politics with a losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010, and Levine both complain that their comments about Trump were taken out of context.
In a recent telephone interview, Greene pointed the finger at Levine for the negative spots.
“Do I want to get into this? This isn’t what I want to talk about. This is what Levine wants to talk about,” Greene said, accusing Levine of “running a dirty campaign.”
Greene also said Levine is attempting to “basically take my record and call it his own,” and Greene spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren accused Levine —- shown in some polls as a close second to former Congresswoman Gwen Graham —- of “trying to steal from the winning playbook.”
But Christian Ulvert, Levine’s senior campaign consultant, scoffed at the notion. Levine “has built one of the strongest operations our party has seen,” with 150 staffers and 14 field offices, Ulvert said.
“When Jeff Greene and his campaign can point to that, then they can come talk to me about what their strategy is,” Ulvert said.
Greene may eschew negative campaign ads, but he's also come out of the box attacking Graham and hasn't let up on the assaults.
He has spent more than $20 million on TV ads since joining the race as a latecomer in June, while Levine has spent about the same amount since going on-air in November.
Levine was upbeat during a visit to his Tallahassee campaign office this month, saying he was the best candidate to face off in November against the winner of the Republican primary battle between Congressman Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
“I think people are starting to wake up to that fact,” Levine told The News Service of Florida. “Unlike Jeff Greene, who in the TV commercial is passing the Grey Poupon across the table at the country club with Donald Trump, I’ve spent a year-and-a-half of my life fighting for Hillary Clinton, to make sure she’d be the first female president. … I think what people are realizing now is that you can’t just buy TV ads and pretend that you’re something that you’re not.”
The duke-out between the two Democratic contenders —- locked in a battle against Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King —- may not bode well for either candidate with voting already underway.
Less than two weeks from the Aug. 28 primary, all candidates are trying to introduce themselves to voters, said Scott Arceneaux, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party who works for Gillum.
“Trying to point fingers about who’s with Donald Trump more isn’t a way to attract votes right now. It’s strange to see, but that is what they’re doing,” Arceneaux said. “The fact that these two guys are fighting with each other over who loves Trump more, that’s great.”
Greene’s entry into the race likely hurt Levine the most of the top-tier candidates, said Florida Atlantic University political-science professor Kevin Wagner.
“So it’s not surprising to see Levine hit back, and it’s not a surprise to see Greene going after Levine, because Levine’s voters are very much voters Greene thinks he can get,” Wagner said.
Painting opponents as being too close to Trump or his administration “are fighting words for the Democrats,” Wagner said.
“What it really illustrates is, even though he’s not on the ballot, the president is very much the focal point of the campaigns in both parties,” he said.