The big question on Florida Democrats’ minds: Can they beat Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)?
The party’s voters on Tuesday are set to choose between Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), a former Republican governor who’s making his second attempt at reclaiming his old office, and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone statewide elected Democrat, in the primary to challenge DeSantis this fall.
But while few Republicans ignite the same kind of outrage among Democrats as DeSantis does, it’s unclear whether the party has the candidates — or the firepower — to oust a governor whose political rise among conservatives appears, at times, unstoppable.
Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster who helped former President Obama win the state in 2008 and 2012, said that just a few months ago, DeSantis looked “unbeatable.” But since then, he said, the political landscape has shifted drastically, thanks in no small part to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the seminal abortion rights case.
“He now looks vulnerable,” Amandi said. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to be defeated, but it means the dynamics have changed enough at the national level that what once looked like a sure thing is now a potentially competitive race.”
“If the Democratic candidates can make Ron DeSantis the poster boy for Republican extremism and what the future of Republican extremism can look like if he’s not defeated, then they can position themselves to win,” he added. “If the race is about anything else, it’s going to be very difficult,” Amandi added.
Of course, DeSantis may have more on the line than his own reelection. The combative Florida governor is widely believed to be mulling a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and even a lackluster showing in his home state this year could raise questions about his political future.
Still, early polling shows DeSantis leading both Crist and Fried in hypothetical general election match-ups. At the same time, neither Democrat has raised anywhere near as much money as the Florida governor, who has pulled in more than $100 million for his reelection bid — an amount more in line with that of a top-tier presidential candidate than a state official seeking a second term in office.
There are also more systemic issues plaguing Democrats in Florida.
The state Democratic Party has struggled financially for years, and its political infrastructure has deteriorated. And while Democratic leaders, including the state party’s newest chairman, Manny Diaz, have sought to right the ship, strategists and political operatives admit there’s still a long way to go.
“I think we’ve seen some movement, some effort to stabilize things. But it’s just not where we need to be,” said one Florida Democratic official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s operations. “That’s the recurring theme in all of this.”
In perhaps one of the most apparent signs of Democrats’ struggles in Florida, the number of active voters registered with the GOP surpassed the number registered as Democrats for the first time in the state’s history — an advantage that has only continued to grow since late last year.
There are now about 231,000 more registered Republican voters in the state than Democrats. Compare that to 2008, when Obama carried Florida by about 200,000 votes; at the time, there were 700,000 more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans.
And then there’s the matter of Democrats’ mounting struggles with Latinos, a critical voting bloc whose support for Democrats has eroded in recent years. Republicans, meanwhile, have made major inroads among those voters, a trend underscored in 2020, when former President Trump lost Latino-heavy Miami-Dade County to President Biden by only 7 points after falling to Hillary Clinton there by nearly 30 points in 2016.
That all adds up to create a much tougher environment for Democrats to win in, according to Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
“We don’t know the impact of Roe v. Wade decision. We don’t know the impact of some of these culture war battles that DeSantis is fighting,” Jewett said. “But the Democrats are the underdogs, whether it’s Fried or Crist. They have their work cut out for them.”
Florida is still known for hosting some of the nation’s closest elections — DeSantis won his office in 2018 by little more than 32,000 votes, or only about 0.4 percentage points — and even many Republicans say that they don’t expect a landslide for the Florida governor.
But first, Democrats will have to coalesce behind a nominee, and as of now, it’s unclear which way they’ll break. Crist has raised more money and has gotten more support from the state Democratic establishment than Fried, a relative newcomer who won her office four years ago by little more than 5,000 votes.
Fried, meanwhile, has sought to cast herself as the true Democrat in the race, pointing to Crist’s history of party switching; a longtime Republican, Crist challenged Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as an independent before becoming a Democrat in 2012.
She’s also put the issue of abortion rights front and center in her campaign since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer and has hammered Crist for his past inconsistencies on the issue of reproductive rights.
The big question now is just how quickly Democrats can unify in the wake of the primary. Crist pledged during a debate last month to endorse Fried should she win the nomination. Fried, on the other hand, made no such promise — a move that Crist described on Monday as disappointing.
Nevertheless, he said that Democrats are planning an “unification rally” in South Florida later this week once the primary results are hashed out.
Recent polling in the primary hasn’t done much to clarify where the race stands. While Crist has led in most public surveys so far, a University of North Florida (UNF) poll released last week showed Fried leading by a 4-point margin. But a survey out Monday from St. Pete Polls painted a very different picture, showing Crist ahead by nearly 30 points.
In a brief interview on Monday, Fried insisted that DeSantis is “without a doubt beatable,” noting that the governor’s approval ratings “have already gone down.” Indeed, the UNF poll released last week showed his approval rating dropping to 50 percent from 58 percent previously.
Fried also said that the Roe v. Wade ruling had given her campaign a boost of momentum, arguing that her stance on abortion would energize not just Democrats but also independent and Republican women in the general election.
“If Democrats want to win in November, I am they’re only choice,” she told The Hill. “If they want a fighter, I’m their only choice. If they want an advocate, I’m their only choice. And if they want a winner, I am their only choice.”
Crist, on the other hand, has leaned into his long history in Florida politics and happy warrior persona to make the case that he’s the Democrat best equipped to take on DeSantis in November.
He has rolled out endorsements from high-profile Florida Democrats and the state’s largest newspapers and has campaigned as a consensus candidate capable of pulling the support of independent and moderate voters disenchanted by DeSantis’s combative and often controversial political style.
“Everyone knows Charlie, and that means that he can spend his time not introducing himself but making the argument that Ron DeSantis has had his chance to bring the state together, to lower prices, to stand up to special interests, stand up to dictators abroad, and he’s failed,” said Joshua Karp, a senior adviser to Crist’s campaign.
Still, Democrats say they’re aware of just how difficult it will be to defeat DeSantis in November — something Crist himself acknowledged on Monday during a call with reporters.
“This is not going to be an easy race against DeSantis,” Crist said. “I am clear-eyed about that.”