The big question in the minds of the Florida Democrats: Can they beat Governor Ron DeSantis (R)?
The party’s voters will choose Tuesday between Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), a former Republican governor making his second attempt at reclaiming his old office, and State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, in the first to challenge DeSantis this fall .
But while few Republicans spark the same kind of outrage among Democrats as DeSantis, it’s unclear whether the party has the candidates — or the firepower — to oust a governor whose political rise among conservatives sometimes seems unstoppable.
Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster who helped former President Obama win the state in 2008 and 2012, said DeSantis looked “unbeatable” just a few months ago. But since then, he said, the political landscape has changed dramatically, thanks in no small part to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the groundbreaking abortion rights case.
“He looks vulnerable now,” Amandi said. “That doesn’t mean he will be beaten, but it means the dynamics have changed nationally enough that what once seemed certain is now a potentially competitive race.”
“If the Democratic candidates can make Ron DeSantis the figurehead of Republican extremism and what the future of Republican extremism might look like if he’s not defeated, then they can position themselves to win,” he added. “If the race is about something else, it will be very difficult,” added Amanda.
Of course, DeSantis may have more at stake than his own reelection. It’s widely believed that the combative Florida governor is bidding for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, and even a lackluster showing in his home state this year could raise questions about his political future.
Still, early polls show that DeSantis leads both Crist and Fried in hypothetical general election match-ups. At the same time, neither Democrat has raised as much money as the Florida governor, who has raised more than $100 million for his reelection bid — an amount more in line with that of a top-level presidential candidate than a state official seeking a second term of office.
There are also more systemic problems plaguing Democrats in Florida.
The state Democratic Party has been struggling financially for years and its political infrastructure has deteriorated. And while Democratic leaders, including the state party’s newest chairman, Manny Diaz, have tried to straighten out, strategists and political operatives admit there is 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 a Florida Democratic official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s activities. “That is the common thread in all of this.”
In perhaps one of the most obvious signs of the Democrats’ struggle in Florida, the number of active voters registered with the GOP surpassed those registered as Democrats for the first time in state history — a benefit that has only been seen since late last year. but has continued to grow for years.
There are now about 231,000 more registered Republican voters in the state than Democrats. Compare that to 2008, when Obama won 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 Democrats’ growing battle with Latinos, a critical voting bloc whose support for Democrats has waned in recent years. Republicans, meanwhile, have made a major advance among those voters, a trend underlined in 2020, when former President Trump lost Latino-heavy Miami-Dade County by just 7 points to President Biden after dropping nearly 30 points from President Biden in 2016. Hillary Clinton.
According to Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, all of that creates a much more difficult environment for Democrats to win.
“We don’t know the impact of the Roe v. Wade decision. We don’t know the impact of some of these cultural war battles that DeSantis is waging,” Jewett said. “But the Democrats are the underdogs, whether it’s Fried or Crist. They have done their job for them.”
Florida is still known for hosting some of the country’s closest elections — DeSantis won his office in 2018 by just over 32,000 votes, or just about 0.4 percentage points — and even many Republicans say they don’t expect a landslide for the governor of Florida.
But first, the Democrats will have to rally behind a candidate, and as of now, it’s unclear which way they’ll go. Crist has raised more money and gained more support from the state’s Democratic establishment than Fried, a relative newcomer who won office four years ago by just over 5,000 votes.
Fried, meanwhile, has tried to profile himself as the real Democrat in the race, pointing to Crist’s history of party change; Crist, a longtime Republican, challenged Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as an independent before becoming a Democrat in 2012.
She has also put the issue of abortion rights at the center of her campaign since the Supreme Court overthrown Roe v. Wade this summer and has hammered Crist over his past inconsistencies on reproductive rights.
The big question now is how quickly Democrats can unite in the aftermath of the primaries. Crist pledged during a debate last month to support Fried if she won the nomination. Fried, on the other hand, made no such promise — a move Crist described on Monday as disappointing.
Nevertheless, he said Democrats are planning a “unification meeting” in South Florida later this week once the primary results are known.
Recent polls in the primaries have not done much to clarify where the race stands. While Crist has led the most public polls to date, a University of North Florida (UNF) poll published last week showed Fried had a 4-point lead. But a Monday poll from St. Pete Polls painted a very different picture, with Crist leading nearly 30 points.
In a brief interview on Monday, Fried insisted that DeSantis “can be beaten without a doubt,” noting that the governor’s approval ratings “have already dropped.” Indeed, the UNF survey released last week found that its approval rating fell to 50 percent from 58 percent earlier.
Fried also said the Roe v. Wade ruling had boosted her campaign, arguing that her stance on abortion would boost not only Democrats, but also independent and Republican women in the general election.
“If the Democrats want to win in November, I’m the only choice,” she told The Hill. “If they want a fighter, I’m their only choice. If they want a lawyer, I’m their only choice. And if they want a winner, I’m their only choice.”
Crist, on the other hand, leaned on his long history in Florida politics and lucky warrior persona to claim he is the Democrat best equipped to take on DeSantis in November.
He has spread the support of high-profile Florida Democrats and the state’s largest newspapers, and has campaigned as a consensus candidate capable of gaining the support of independent and moderate voters disenchanted with DeSantis’ combative and often controversial political style. .
“Everyone knows Charlie, which means he can spend his time not introducing himself, but arguing that Ron DeSantis has had his chance to bring the state together, lower prices, stand up to special interests, to stand up to dictators abroad, and he has failed,” said Joshua Karp, a senior adviser to Crist’s campaign.
Still, Democrats say they are aware of how difficult it will be to defeat DeSantis in November — something Crist himself acknowledged during a conversation with reporters on Monday.
“This is not going to be an easy race against DeSantis,” said Crist. “I’m clear about that.”