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Facing a historic challenge, Florida Democrats stumble against DeSantis

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/1/2021 Tim Craig

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. —To Kelly Smith, the case against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is strong. More than 50,000 Floridians killed by covid-19. A confrontational opposition to mask mandates and vaccines that has rubbed even some Republicans the wrong way.

But the Pasco County Democratic Party head is skeptical that Florida Democrats can capitalize on it to topple DeSantis (R) next November.

“My concern is [DeSantis] is going to win again, simply because people know his name and we haven’t been able to connect how his policies and executive orders impact them,” Smith said. “And we are a little behind in getting out and meeting the voters.”

Smith’s angst, echoed by local Democratic officials throughout Florida, highlights the grim struggle facing the party, which is trying to rebound from its 2020 losses while developing an effective message against DeSantis ahead of his possible presidential campaign.

Yet as they seek to defeat DeSantis’s brash style of conservatism, Florida Democrats have been battered by internal divisions over strategy and messaging, lackluster fundraising and a flailing voter registration effort, even as the state’s population gets more diverse.

For the first time in history, there are nearly as many Republicans registered in Florida as there are Democrats. The state continues to drift to the right even as new census data shows White residents have slipped to 51 percent of the state’s population.

“We have failed to counter Republican propaganda, which has been especially aimed at Independent and no-party affiliated voters,” said Steve Simeonidis, a former chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. “Republicans have been able to convince them to vote against their own values, and part of the reason is they are out knocking on doors six, seven, eight months before an election.”

[As Gov. Ron DeSantis consolidates his power in Florida, some local officials rebuke his leadership style]

Democrats are also contending with fundraising challenges, struggling to convince wealthy donors that the state will remain pivotal in future presidential elections.

Against that backdrop, Florida Democrats are preparing for a divisive primary battle next year. There are already two leading White contenders in the governor’s race — former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who is now a U.S. representative, and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is vying to become the state’s first female governor.

Annette Taddeo, a Colombian American state senator from Miami, said she is also likely to get into the race, bringing the issue of diversity to the forefront of the state’s Aug. 23 Democratic primary.

'The first three months were hell to me'

Although Florida hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1994, statewide elections have been close here for decades.

Former president Barack Obama carried Florida in both of his campaigns. In 2018, Andrew Gillum, running to become the state’s first Black governor, came within 33,000 votes of defeating DeSantis. The same year, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) prevailed over Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson by just 10,000 votes.

But Democrats’ troubles were apparent in November when President Donald Trump carried Florida by 370,000 votes — more than three times his 2016 winning margin — after he rallied rural and exurban White voters while also doing better than expected among Cuban Americans and some other minority groups in South and Central Florida.

Since then, Democrats’ woes have accelerated.

According to voter registration data released in late August, registered Republicans are poised to eclipse registered Democrats for the first time in history. There are now 23,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, down from Democrats’ 183,000 voter advantage just a year ago.

A decade ago, Democrats had a half-million more registered voters than the GOP.

Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a Sarasota County commissioner, said DeSantis is fueling the GOP’s success, attracting voters with his coronavirus policies, which prioritized opening up the state.

“In Florida, Republicans, Democrats and Independents take covid seriously, and probably know someone who died from covid, but they question whether we can remain in lockdown mode forever,” said Ziegler, adding that the GOP is especially pleased by the numbers of middle-aged women and Latinos who are registering as Republicans.

Experts and party insiders cite other reasons for Republicans’ success.

Even though Democratic donors have poured tens of millions of dollars into the state over the past decade, local Democratic officials say that money hasn’t trickled down to the county parties that do much of the work finding new voters.

As a result, chairs of local Democratic parties say they’re increasingly struggling to compete for new voters. The challenge has only grown as national Democratic donors invest less in Florida.

“Our candidates are all talking about how difficult it is to raise money this year,” said Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. “Our donors need to understand we are good stewards of their money, and that we can deliver on the money.”

Former Miami mayor Manny Diaz, who was elected chairman of the Florida Democratic Party in January, said he “inherited a financial mess,” including the party ending the 2020 election with $800,000 in debt in its federal election account. The shortfall followed a string of controversial financial decisions, including accepting a federal loan last year that was intended for small businesses, which the party later had to pay back.

“The first three months were hell for me, to figure out what was what, and who do I owe money to,” Diaz said. “The more questions I asked, the more things surfaced.”

In recent months, Diaz said the state party’s finances have stabilized, in part because former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg donated a half-million dollars in February.

But Diaz said he still has to do a lot more work to turn the party into an effective, year-round operation by boosting its paid staff while enhancing coordination between state and local Democratic leaders.

“What I am telling major donors is, if you have a successful business, don’t you invest in that business regularly, or do you disappear regularly and come back?” Diaz said. “You wouldn’t start a distribution company that doesn’t have distribution routes, and logistics.

'The gift that keeps on giving'

In Hillsborough County, Townsend said Democrats’ advantage over the GOP in registered voters has shifted from about 75,000 in November — when President Biden carried the county by about 50,000 votes — to 68,000 today. Elections officials have been removing people from voter rolls if they have not voted in recent elections, a process that has disproportionately affected Democrats, Townsend added.

But Townsend still thinks DeSantis can be defeated by wooing Independents — who make up a quarter of registered voters in Florida and who she believes have been especially turned off by DeSantis’s approach to the virus.

She noted Hillsborough county had a 6 percent increase in voter turnout last year, and Democrats expanded into a 5-to-2 majority on the county commission.

In August, the Hillsborough County School Board became one of the first in the state to defy DeSantis by imposing a mask mandate for students.

DeSantis fired back by threatening to withhold the salaries of school board members. He generated more controversy recently when he announced that parents can decided whether school-aged children should quarantine if they are exposed to the virus.

“Governor DeSantis is the gift that keeps on giving” for Democrats, Townsend said. “He has not only failed us on covid, but he has failed us in so many other ways.”

Although most of the court battles over DeSantis’s covid policies continue, DeSantis has suffered a string of high-profile losses, including a federal judge’s ruling earlier this month that a bill he championed to crack down on unruly protesters was unconstitutional.

DeSantis, who started the year as one of the nation’s most popular governors, has seen an erosion in his poll numbers as Florida hospitals became overwhelmed with coronavirus patients this summer. Several polls over the past six weeks show just less than half of Florida voters approve of the governor’s job performance.

DeSantis has been crisscrossing the state trying to shore up his appeal, at times flying into four separate Florida media markets in a single day.

Although most of DeSantis’s recent public outings have been designed to defend his covid policies, the governor has also been attempting to broaden his political message. A few weeks ago, DeSantis announced he would push to end standardized testing in schools, drawing praise from the traditionally Democratic-leaning teachers’ unions.

“People are coming to us and telling us they really like Gov. DeSantis’s matter-of-fact, common-sense leadership style,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Florida Republican Party.

Aguirre Ferré noted 1,000 people a day moved to Florida during the height of the pandemic, and the GOP has been using marketing data and other tools to reach out to the newcomers.

“We know why they are coming to Florida, and that opens up opportunities for us,” said Ferré.

Kevin Cate, a Florida Democratic strategist who is now advising Fried, noted DeSantis has raised $40 million for his campaign so far this year, and Cate expects the governor will have as much as $150 million by next fall.

That money advantage will be tough for Democrats to overcome, but Cate is more optimistic about his party’s chances than he was even a few weeks ago.

“Many of us are trying to figure out where the floor [for his approval rating] actually is. Is it 43 percent or is 47 percent?” asked Cate, noting that as little as 5 percent of Florida’s electorate may be up for grabs by next fall. “But seeing his numbers drop in the mid-40s should perk up the ear and eyes of every Democrat.”

'An alternative way to lead'

As Florida Democrats ponder their path forward, they appear headed for an extended battle between Crist, Fried and, probably, Taddeo.

In an interview, Crist, 65, compared the choice facing voters in the Aug. 23 primary to the one that Democratic voters nationally made last year in deciding their nominee to take on Trump.

“Biden had tremendous experience in public service, versus a rookie president, who acted like a rookie every day, or worse,” said Crist, who is also a former state attorney general. “In this race, we have a rookie governor who acts like a rookie every day.”

Crist previously served as governor from 2007 to 2011 as a Republican, but he left the GOP a year later. He ran again for governor in 2014 as a Democrat, but was defeated by Scott.

Fried, the only Democrat to win statewide in 2018, argues that she can win the state’s vote-rich suburbs by showcasing how she’s already been “holding Governor DeSantis accountable.”

As agriculture commissioner, Fried, 43, has sparred frequently with DeSantis, accusing the governor of withholding data on coronavirus cases and deaths.

“We have shown the people of our state an alternative way to lead,” Fried said. “People are tired of this chaos, and just wanting someone who just cares about the well-being of their family members.”

Taddeo, 54, said Democrats are not going to be successful unless they do more to reach non-White voters. Citing her Colombian heritage, Taddeo said she can “fight back” against GOP efforts to portray the party as “socialists and communists,” a charge many Democrats blame for their 2020 losses here.

“It’s time for new leadership, and I offer something completely different,” said Taddeo, who ran as Crist’s running mate during his unsuccessful 2014 campaign. “I am a Latina from Miami-Dade, a small-business owner, and I am also a mother at a time when we, as parents with our kids in school like I have, are very concerned about the current governor, and the way he is behaving.”

'Effective campaigns have to do better legwork'

Susan A. MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said the biggest problem facing Democrats is appealing to young voters of color.

In July, MacManus published a study that found the Biden campaign struggled to turn out younger voters, a core segment of the party’s coalition.

Writing in the Sayfie Review, MacManus noted that three youngest generations — Gen X, millennials and Gen Z — now make up 57 percent of registered votes in Florida.

Among Gen Z, broadly defined as Floridians born after 1996, just 46 percent of registered voters identify as White, compared with 71 percent of baby boomers. Although 37 percent Gen Z registered voters identify as Democrats, 26 percent are registered Republicans while a growing share — 34 percent — are choosing not to identify with either party.

And in 2020, younger Republicans in Florida turned out in greater numbers than younger Democrats, a reversal from 2018, when Gillum turned out a diverse coalition of voters.

MacManus said Trump did well with Florida voters in their 30s, which she thinks was a sign that many service workers and employees in the tourism industry feared Biden would enact additional covid restrictions. Two-thirds of millennial voters had supported Obama just eight years earlier, MacManus noted.

“Effective campaigns have to do better legwork up front on the state’s demographic makeup and find a better, nuanced message,” MacManus said. “They have to figure out all Latinos don’t vote alike. All women don’t vote alike. And all younger voters don’t vote alike.”

Democratic organizers echo a similar message.

In diverse South Florida, Kassandra Timothe, a Haitian American Democrat who serves on the North Miami Council, said Democrats simply haven’t invested enough money in crafting a message that can break through the clutter of conservative media and reach voters about the issues they care about.

“We need to have a message of, ‘We hear you,’ ” Timothe, 31, adding that she hopes Democrats focus on issues such as how to grow wages and housing affordability. “We need to tell younger voters, ‘Yes, you can live the American Dream.’ ”

Lilly Eubanks, the chairwoman of the Escambia County Democratic Party, said she hopes that Democrats start looking beyond covid and craft a message that focuses on “helping people” once the pandemic wanes.

“A lot of people have lost loved ones, and there is a mess in Florida with our health-care system, and with what our doctors and nurses have gone through, it’s too big of a thing to ignore,” Eubanks said. “But I don’t think it’s the only thing we can talk about.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Kassandra Timothe served on the North Miami Beach Council. She serves on the North Miami Council. An earlier version also incorrectly attributed a quote spoken by Aguirre Ferré to Kevin Cate. The story has been corrected.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the welcome segment of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. © Joe Skipper/Reuters Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the welcome segment of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February.
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