Politico

Florida Democrats anxious as DeSantis seems unbeatable


TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis appears unstoppable.

A year before the Florida gubernatorial election, the Republican governor has nearly $60 million in the bank. The GOP is on the cusp of becoming the state’s majority party after erasing Democrats’ enormous voter registration advantage. The Democratic field is splintering and support for President Joe Biden has collapsed in the state.

It’s a situation that has alarmed Democrats, who fear that Florida’s days as a battleground state are over and that national donors will write off their candidates.

“Right now Democrats are engaged in Powerball politics. They could get lucky, but it’s more likely to happen because of circumstances outside their control rather than their ability to change the political environment in Florida,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic political consultant and pollster who helped Barack Obama win the state in 2008 and 2012.

This is not the place Democrats expected to be three years ago when DeSantis beat then-Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by just under 34,000 votes. It signals that Democrats have much ground to cover before 2024 if they have any hopes of retaking Florida’s 30 electoral votes after former President Donald Trump won the state in 2016 and then by a larger gap in 2020.

A lot has changed since DeSantis was first elected. During the pandemic, DeSantis veered to the right as he touted an anti-lockdown, anti-mandate Covid stance. He pushed for laws and policies that targeted social media giants and racial justice protesters, and fought against the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools. His policies raised his profile nationally and have turned DeSantis into the leading 2024 presidential contender if Trump doesn’t run.

In a state that’s turning red, it’s working. Recent surveys shared with POLITICO show half of registered voters think the state is headed in the right direction, compared with only 25 percent who think the country is headed in the right direction.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a progressive Democrat from Orlando who considered challenging DeSantis, also acknowledges Democrats’ grim position.

“The election’s not happening tomorrow, there is still time for the tide to turn,” Eskamani said. “But obviously it needs to be an all-hands-on-deck situation right now.”

Manny Diaz, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, pushed back when asked about the governor’s race, saying it’s “unbelievable we’re having a conversation a year out” about a DeSantis victory.

“We’re in Florida. We lost the last governor’s race by 30,000 votes against the same character,” Diaz said. “In politics, a year is an eternity. There’s nothing that leads me to believe DeSantis is unbeatable.”

Diaz pointed out that many laws DeSantis pushed have wound up in the courts, where he has lost several legal battles. He contended that many in the business community are turned off by the governor’s push to go after them if they don’t follow his lead against vaccine mandates. He added that his drive to strip money from school districts over mask mandates and a rising number of murders in the state will not sit well with Florida’s voters.

“I look at his record and say, ‘Exactly what are you running on? What makes you unbeatable?’” Diaz said. “If I were running for governor, I would be excited. Bring this guy on.”

Three main Democrats have jumped into the race to challenge DeSantis: U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and state Sen. Annette Taddeo. Both Fried and Crist entered the race at the start of the summer, and Taddeo just joined the race in mid-October.

Crist, who was elected as governor in 2006 while he was still a Republican, has been on a statewide ballot numerous times but not since 2014, when he narrowly lost to then-Gov. Rick Scott.

Crist has received more than 100 endorsements, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a growing digital operation and held nearly 60 separate campaign events across the state over the last few months. And he remains upbeat about defeating DeSantis despite the governor’s current advantages. But Crist has less than $3 million in the bank.

“Of course we’re going to beat the guy, he’s going to go down,” Crist said during a Tallahassee campaign appearance in October. “People do not like what he’s doing and Covid is the tip of the spear.”

Fried, a former lobbyist, had never held elected office before she narrowly won her race in 2018. But she is the only Democrat to win a statewide election since 2012. She is a constant critic of DeSantis, which has led to a surge of activity online and a fairly constant stream of media coverage. She has taken some swipes at Crist — including over his recent turnabout over the legalization of marijuana — and has a very slight money advantage over him. But she is focusing much of her energy on blasting the governor.

In a statement provided by the campaign, Fried insisted that she has “clear momentum in the race” and that her organization is enlisting thousands of volunteers to help out.

“Governor DeSantis is running scared — that’s why he’s more focused on his presidential campaign than doing what’s right by the people of the state he’s supposed to be governing,” Fried said. “We are hitting our fundraising and volunteer targets, and I am more confident every single day that we will defeat him.”

For its part, the DeSantis campaign is marching ahead. The campaign is taking steps to formalize its organization, and it’s anticipated that DeSantis will formally file some of his initial reelection paperwork between now and the end of the year.

One of the campaign’s main goals remains building up a sizable fundraising advantage to ward off national Democrats from flooding money into the state in the closing stages of the campaign.

“This guy is running like he’s 10 points behind,” said Nick Iarossi, a Republican lobbyist and longtime DeSantis adviser. “He’s not going to let off the gas.”

Melissa Stone, the campaign manager for Scott’s 2014 gubernatorial reelection campaign, cautioned that “Florida is always difficult” and that she still expects a competitive race, citing the close margins in the 2018 race to choose Scott’s successor. Stone helped guide Scott’s win while there was a Democrat — Obama — in the White House.

“It’s a really hard state to win,” said Stone, who is currently an adviser for Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who will also be on the ballot next year. “It’s never to be taken for granted.”

But Stone said that DeSantis — who has ramped up his criticism of Biden over everything from vaccine mandates to immigration policy — has already been able to show a dramatic contrast between himself and Democrats.

And that’s what will make him difficult to beat, says Kartik Krishnaiyer, a longtime Democratic activist and former campaign consultant.

Krishnaiyer says that he is concerned about Florida’s rightward shift and that DeSantis is “skillfully playing the cultural line” with his focus on the nation’s culture wars.

“The bottom line is we are dealing with a much more ruthless and sophisticated operator than Rick Scott was,” Krishnaiyer said.

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