Democrats prepare for all-in Florida fight against rising GOP star Ron DeSantis
By Michael Scherer,
Chris O’Meara AP
After nearly a decade of disappointment in the Sunshine State, Democrats are throwing themselves back into the breach with a major effort to topple Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Fox News phenom and potential 2024 presidential contender, in a reelection race that will be a major test of whether Donald Trump’s vision for the Republican Party has staying power in a closely divided state.
Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), elected governor of the state as a Republican in 2006, became the first to announce his candidacy Tuesday, declaring that he hoped to “restore civility instead of demonizing those who have a different point of view.”
“If we seize this moment, if we take this chance, if we focus on the things that unite us, we can create the Florida we know is possible,” he said.
Crist will probably soon be joined by other contenders, possibly including state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat to recently win statewide, and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a former House impeachment manager and Orlando police chief who was shortlisted as a potential running mate for President Biden. Demings released a biographical video Tuesday timed to compete with Crist’s announcement, and Fried teased Crist on Twitter by recalling his past praise for her.
The emerging Democratic field reflects the party’s enthusiasm for taking power back in Trump’s new home state, a historic bellwether that has shut out Democrats from almost every major contest there since Barack Obama won in 2012 by less than a percentage point.
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, who recently authorized $20 million in spending in states such as Florida before 2022, has taken to taunting DeSantis on Twitter, while promising that “we are going to be doing everything we can” to defeat him.
In a sign of how Democrats plan to campaign next year, Harrison called out DeSantis for opposing Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which sent $1,400 checks to most Florida adults.
“Maybe he should call up every one of those Floridians and tell them to give their money back,” Harrison quipped about DeSantis in an interview Monday.
Republicans say they expect an onslaught of outside money into the state next year, given DeSantis’s potential as a presidential contender if Trump does not run again.
“With Ron DeSantis being discussed as one of the front-runners on the Republican side for 2024, you are going to have a lot of people, liberals, billionaires from blue states, dumping money and human capital into Florida,” said Christian Ziegler, the state GOP vice chairman. “The best way you prevent someone from getting to major leagues is you take him out in the grapefruit league. But the Florida GOP is not going to let that happen.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis, shown speaking in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Monday, is viewed as a likely Republican presidential front-runner if Donald Trump does not run again.
The Democratic case against DeSantis is expected to aim directly at the emerging identity of the current Republican Party, under the hold of Trump, with its focus on opposition to transgender athletes, new voting restrictions, new laws barring disruptive protests, social media censorship and restrictions on health measures meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, all issues that DeSantis has fully embraced in recent weeks.
Fried said in an interview that she sees DeSantis as a symptom of a larger realignment in American politics, which will ultimately benefit Democrats in the state. The governor, she said, has moved away from the small-government ethos of the old Republican Party, pointing to a recent $1 billion increase in sales taxes on out-of-state online businesses that DeSantis signed, and a host of state orders he has supported that overrule the autonomy of local governments.
“He has gone in an extreme, authoritarian, fascist direction. It is no longer between left and right,” Fried said about the evolution of Florida Republicans during the Trump presidency. “They are now the party of tax and spend and overreaching in government. They just banned transgender girls from sports. I have no idea why government has to get involved in athletics.”
Crist hit upon similar themes in his announcement speech, accusing DeSantis of being “mean and cruel to children” by banning transgender athletes in women’s and girls sports.
“This is a governor who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t care and doesn’t think about you, unless you can write him a campaign check,” Crist said in a sweltering outdoor speech in St. Petersburg, where his aides set up a personal fan onstage to keep him cooler. “I’m running so you will be in charge again, so you will have a governor who will work for the people with a steady hand.”
Nikki Fried, Florida commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, is likely to join the field of Democrats running for Florida governor.
DeSantis has been riding a recent wave of positive polling and publicity, becoming a frequent guest of Fox News’ prime-time lineup, while adopting a Trumpian taste for staging self-congratulatory public events, where he stands by the lectern as other officials praise his leadership, including an event Monday on Crist’s home turf in St. Petersburg.
On Tuesday in Tallahassee, DeSantis welcomed Democratic critiques of his coronavirus response, and joked about Crist having shifted his political identity beginning when he was governor, when he first became an independent and then a Democrat.
“Please run on lockdowns,” DeSantis quipped in a news conference, when asked about Crist’s announcement. “I implore them, from my political interest, run on closing schools, run on locking people down, run on closing businesses.”
A former Navy attorney, schooled at Yale University and Harvard Law School, DeSantis narrowly won in 2018 after earning the enthusiastic endorsement of Trump and the financial backing of a slew of wealthy GOP kingmakers, including the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, investment manager Foster Friess, packaging magnate Richard Uihlein and Rebekah Mercer, the backer of such conservative online outlets as Parler and Breitbart.
His term in office has been largely defined by a sometimes rocky response to the coronavirus pandemic. After embracing state lockdowns in the spring of 2020, he later pushed to lift business restrictions before the summer. Cases in Florida subsequently spiked, and his administration once again banned most alcohol sales at bars.
By the fall, he had refashioned himself into a defiant national voice urging a quicker reopening, pressing to restart in-person education as other states were hesitating. Florida, with an older average age than most of the country, is 26th in the nation in terms of per capita deaths from covid-19, one spot better than Texas and three spots worse than California. The state’s new covid case rate remains higher than the national average, with only six states reporting higher rates than Florida over the last seven days.
“Lockdowns simply don’t work. They only compound the problem,” he wrote in a recent direct-mail fundraising appeal distributed by the state party, which glossed over the fact that his administration had repeatedly supported business shutdowns that appeared to slow the spread of the disease. “Shutting a business will not dictate to a virus how it will spread.”
DeSantis appeared to have bounced back from lower approval ratings in the summer of 2020. He led both Fried and Crist by about 10 percentage points in a hypothetical matchup, according to a March survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy.
Crist’s strategists acknowledge that winning the debate over the governor’s response to the coronavirus will be a central mission of his campaign, which could cost $50 million or more for each candidate.
“I think fundamentally this race is going to be about defining the difference between these two candidates,” Crist pollster Mike Bocian said, referring to the past and current governors. “If at the end of the day voters come away thinking DeSantis did a good job through the pandemic — which demonstrably he didn’t — then he is going to be hard to beat.”
Willie J. Allen Jr.
for The Washington Post
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) in Eatonville, Fla., on January 18, 2020.
Even some of DeSantis’s detractors, like trial attorney John Morgan, a Democratic donor who funded recent successful statewide initiatives to legalize medical marijuana and institute a $15 minimum wage, say DeSantis has emerged from the depths of the pandemic with a coherent case to take to voters.
“He can arguably make the case that he handled it the right way,” Morgan said. “Perception is reality. Whether he was playing Russian roulette with the state of Florida no one will ever know, because the bullet never hit the chamber.”
But other Democrats argue that DeSantis’s recent polling numbers are a clear sign of weakness, not strength, and that a backlash to his governance is coming.
“Post-disaster approval ratings in Florida generally run 65, 70, 80 percent, and DeSantis is nowhere close to that,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant who has been advising Fried. “He has kind of cornered himself into this 2024 narrative. It’s just Fox News. If he is focused on winning the Fox News primary, he is taking his eye off the Florida general in 2022.”
Florida was a major disappointment for Democrats in the 2020 campaign, with Trump roughly tripling his margin of victory over his Democratic opponent in 2016, despite a late infusion of $100 million in spending from liberal billionaire Mike Bloomberg to support Biden. Democrats, however, have since shown no interest in walking away from the state.
“When you have a state that is as close as Florida is, I don’t think you can write it off,” said Jim Margolis, a Democratic consultant to Hillary Clinton and Obama who is now working for Crist.
Running as a Democrat, Crist lost a 2014 bid for governor by a single percentage point. In 2018, Democrats running for governor and Senate lost by even narrower margins.
The ability of Democrats to return to the margins that allowed for Obama’s victory in 2012 is almost certain to run through South Florida, where Republican arguments about the allegedly “socialist” designs of Biden and Democrats proved damaging in the last presidential race.
Democrats admit that they will have to alleviate those perceptions, particularly in Florida’s Cuban and Venezuelan communities.
“The opportunity exists with a Democrat in the White House because they have control of the federal government gives them a chance to show how Democrats can perform better than Republicans,” Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi said.