Politico

‘DeSantis seems unstoppable’: Florida Dems worry they can’t beat the governor


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Democrats are increasingly worried that the candidates trying to unseat Ron DeSantis can’t stop the popular Republican governor from winning re-election as the GOP solidifies its hold on the state’s political infrastructure.

The Democratic primary between Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami) is just four months away, but some operatives and the party faithful say they don’t believe any can realistically take on DeSantis. The perceived weak slate of candidates, combined with DeSantis’ brand of bully politics, has even led national donors to shy away from the state.

It’s a problem exacerbated by newly drawn congressional maps championed by DeSantis that give Republicans a 20-8 majority, providing national Democrats even less of a reason to send money and resources to Florida.

“It is becoming serious [for Democrats],” said Alex Berrios, who served as Palm Beach County regional field director for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It’s not unsalvageable, but the situation is becoming critical.”

A two-decade absence from the Florida governor’s mansion has left Democrats functionally powerless in the third most populous state in the country. But Democrats face other problems too, including President Joe Biden’s unpopularity, rising prices due to inflation and a statewide electoral landscape that increasingly does not favor Democrats.

But the biggest hurdle is DeSantis, who has amassed a $100 million-plus war chest and is popular in the state and across the country for embracing culture war issues and attacking “woke” corporations and Biden’s policies while defending LGBTQ-related school measures such as Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” measure, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents.

“It is getting more difficult to make the Florida case to national donors,” said veteran Democratic consultant Ben Pollara. “The DeSantis thing is kind of a blessing and a curse. He is perceived as really strong ahead of a potential presidential run, which could scare people off, but also some Democrats really want to knock him off before he gets to that point.”

“That’s really true among the really wealthy progressive donor class,” he added. “The people who give a lot of money to this stuff are really appalled by the idea of him becoming president.”

Another veteran Florida Democratic fundraiser has an even blunter assessment.

“DeSantis seems unstoppable. He has $100 million in the bank, and we have three Tier B candidates I think a lot of people lack confidence in,” said the fundraiser, who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

The problem got worse, the fundraiser added, after the Republican-led Legislature caved to DeSantis during an April special legislative session and approved maps his office drew that gave Republicans 20 of the state’s 28 congressional districts, a significant edge compared to the current maps.

“That makes it even harder for us to get money here,” the fundraiser added. “Even the eight seats for Democrats are pretty much safe. It’s all another hurdle.”


It’s against that backdrop that the three main Democratic contenders gathered at Orlando’s Rosen Center hotel for a candidate forum on Friday night, the first primary season event that all three participated in. The event doubled as a fundraiser for the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida.

Each outlined relatively similar policy platforms of protecting the state’s environment, boosting funding for public education and pushing back on DeSantis’ hard-edged style of governing.

“He is doing this because he wants to run for president,” Taddeo said of the motivation behind DeSantis’ culture war agenda. “He only cares about being president. That’s why we must repeal every single one of those bills, and I will from the governor’s mansion.”

For the most part, the candidates did not attack each other, with the exception of Fried highlighting legislation Crist worked on as a state senator in the early 1990s that required inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

“A 1992 piece of legislation that, I’m sorry, someone on this stage worked on passing that forced individuals to serve 85 percent of their sentences,” Fried said. “We still have Black and brown men in our jail system who should have been let out.”

Crist did not directly respond, instead reserving negative comments for DeSantis, including the governor’s successful push to get lawmakers to repeal a special taxing district for Disney after the company opposed the “Parental Rights in Education” measure.

“It is amazing to me that any elected official in Florida would attack Mickey Mouse, that’s incredible to me,” he said. “But that’s where we are at.”

Crist, a former Republican governor-turned Democratic lawmaker, has consistently led in public polling. He’s received a recent wave of state and national endorsements, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He’s also raised more than $8 million — far less than DeSantis but $3 million more than Fried has brought in since she got in the race June 1, 2021.

“If you look at the three candidates, the polling has not changed much at all, Charlie Crist has been in the lead there and in fundraising, and most recently endorsements,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s unions and one of the biggest remaining groups backing Democrats in the state. “Fried has proven she can win statewide and has done a great job hitting DeSantis, but there has been a consistency with Crist leading of late.”

When asked about the enthusiasm-gap of the current Democratic slate, a spokesperson for Crist said his message is resonating with Democrats, Independent and Republicans who are tired of DeSantis.

“Charlie is not only way ahead of the Democratic field, he is mounting the strongest campaign to beat DeSantis in November,” Samantha Ramirez, his spokesperson, said. “Florida Democrats are mounting the first real coordinated campaign in modern state history, taking to heart lessons learned from past cycles.”


Fried became the first statewide elected Democrat since 2011 after narrowly winning four years ago, giving her a high profile perch to consistently hit DeSantis while carving out a position as titular head of the party and the front-runner for governor. Most Democrats have cheered Fried for taking shots at DeSantis over his pandemic response and affordable housing, among other issues, but see her campaign making key tactical errors that have bogged down momentum.

“I think there have been some missteps on certain policy positions, and I always say candidates should not be on Twitter, they should be raising money,” Tampa-based Democratic consultant Maya Brown said of Fried’s big presence on social media. “I think sometimes they get on Twitter and say stuff, then they can’t take that stuff back.”

Brown pointed to a selfie Fried tweeted from a plane celebrating the end of the federal mask mandate for public transportation. Fried, who was maskless in the photo, posted the selfie the day the mandate was dropped, which annoyed some Democrats who thought it sent the wrong message about safety. Fried also angered some Democrats by suing the Biden administration over a federal policy that does not allow legal users of medical marijuana to own a firearm or get a concealed carry permit.

“The Biden administration lawsuit was confusing for folks. Why would a Democrat sue another Democrat?” Brown asked. “And when you take a risk like the mask tweet, it has to be well thought out. Florida has been open for two of the three years of the pandemic, but what people appreciate about our party is we have been thoughtful and always wanted people to be safe.”

“So, I think that tweet and statement kind of got lost, especially with the brand identity we have built,” she added.

Fried’s campaign has gotten increasingly aggressive in recent weeks, going after Crist on a number of issues tied to his time as a former Republican governor, including that he was openly anti-abortion before leaving the Republican Party in 2010. Her campaign also highlighted reporting that Crist has relied on proxy votes this year instead of in-person voting, a practice Pelosi instituted when Covid-19 was ravaging the nation. While voting remotely, Crist has held regular campaign events.

“Chair as empty as his suit,” tweeted Keith Edwards, a Fried spokesperson, who included a video portraying Crist as a no-show elected official. Edwards told POLITICO that “there’s nobody stronger than the person who won a majority of Florida voters since Obama and nobody weaker than the person who lost two statewide elections in a row.”

A Crist spokesperson told POLITICO that proxy voting is “a great way to ensure his constituents’ voices continue to be heard on legislation under consideration in Congress.”

State Sen. Shev Jones (D-Miami Gardens) was one of Crist’s biggest recent state-level endorsers. The Black Democrat is one of the most popular members of the Legislature and had a close relationship with Fried. He said, however, it was time for Democrats to coalesce around Crist to make sure they don’t stumble out of a brutal primary into a general election against DeSantis.

“It’s time we united early to be able to organize early,” he said in a text message. “The Republicans are good at declaring who they want EARLY — sending money and support behind the candidate. We have to do the same!”

Jones said Fried “will always be my friend,” but she has made some strategic errors that “trying to fix .. in the ninth hour could cost us the war.”

“[Lack of] visibility in the community is one [mistake],” he said. “But issues that hit their kitchen table is what’s missing. People need to KNOW that you have their back. Not on social media, put your team on the street so they can see that you feel them.”


Taddeo has struggled to gain any real momentum. The Miami Democrat has developed support among the party’s progressive grassroots but has lagged behind Crist and Fried in public polling and fundraising. She was Crist’s running mate in 2014 when he made a failed bid for governor so has statewide experience, but has not yet broken through. It didn’t help that she entered the race in mid-October, months after her primary challengers.

“She has been a great advocate for public schools and as a state Senator, but she got in just so late,” Spar said. “She just is having a hard time getting any traction.”

Taddeo’s spokesperson said that, as a small business owner and the only parent in the primary with a child in public schools, Taddeo remains the Democrats’ only shot at beating DeSantis.

There is some optimism among Democrats that the party has honed its message on “pocketbook issues,” including hitting DeSantis on property insurance rate increases and a lack of affordable housing in the state. Democrats raising the issues on the campaign trail helped pressure DeSantis to call lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a late May special session focused on solving the property insurance crisis.

Some Democrats, however, are concerned that the messaging is a little late.

“You need to talk to people, so having a longer runway does not mean you should not get started talking to people,” said Berrios, the founder of the voter registration organization Mi Vecino. “It means you need to start right away because you’re not going to get to everybody.”

To date, Democrats have been spending huge resources to communicate with voters, which gives some in the party hope that when their candidate starts to make TV appearances and meet more voters, the polling and momentum can begin to shift.

Others think that should have already begun.

“Folks are not paying attention yet, they don’t even really know an election is coming. We are four months from primary day, and a lot of people have not gotten any direct voter contact,” Brown said. “I’m a young Black female living in the Tampa area. What targeted messages am I getting? I don’t really think I’m getting any of those.”

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