“It’s the Democrats’ last chance to stop him and it will be a lot cheaper to do it in Florida than it is in 50 states,” Crist told CNN the morning after his win and repeatedly tapped his campaign website. “If you want to help (President) Joe Biden to a second term, we have to shut down Ron DeSantis in Florida.”
Crist’s plea for cash was perhaps as creative as it was downright desperate. After using up most of the $14 million his campaign and the political committee raised to defeat Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in the primary, Crist began the 11-week sprint to the general election almost all over again. Meanwhile, DeSantis awaits Crist with $132 million on hand, a record amount for a governor’s race.
But Crist’s pitch was also born of a difficult reality facing Florida Democrats. After more than 20 years of seeing devastating and narrow defeats in the Sunshine State, many Democratic donors are taking a break from Florida so far this cycle. The prevailing story towards the fall is that Florida has gone too red and DeSantis too powerful for donors to invest here.
It doesn’t help Florida’s cause that 50-50 Senate control hangs in the middle of these midterm elections and that there are sitting Democratic governors in states like Wisconsin and Michigan that the party has so far given precedence over the governor’s mansion. from Florida. Donors are also more motivated to help Democrat Stacey Abrams challenge Republican government Brian Kemp in neighboring Georgia, a Florida-based Democratic fundraiser told CNN.
“Charlie is more likely to get a large check from the tooth fairy under his pillow than from national donors,” the fundraiser said. “I just don’t think they’re focused on the Florida governor race. I think they’re focused on winning seats in states where the Democrats already own the governor’s mansion or where it’s an open seat.”
Democratic Party officials are quick to insist that they remain committed to Florida. Democratic Governors Association spokesman Sam Newton called Florida a “competitive battleground in 2022” and noted the investments the organization has already made to the state party to help build the infrastructure needed to turn this around.
“That’s the same strategy we used to beat Republican incumbents in tough states like (Wisconsin’s) Scott Walker, (North Carolina’s) Pat McCrory and (Kentucky’s) Matt Bevin — and look forward to working hand in hand with the Crist campaign to aggressively hold Ron DeSantis accountable,” Newton said.
Still, the DGA has not matched the $1 million it deposited into the political committee for Andrew Gillum a day after he won the Democratic nomination for Florida governor in 2018. From Gillum’s nomination to Election Day that year, the DGA dropped $7.5 million in Florida. . Few expect that kind of investment in 2022, though Newton didn’t rule it out.
“We are constantly evaluating the best ways to ensure that we deploy resources when they have the greatest impact,” he said.
Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist now with the Lincoln Project, said Democrats will regret it in 2024 if they don’t see the Florida governor race as an opportunity to slow DeSantis’ rise. DeSantis is the only Republican whose polls consistently suggest he would be competitive in a GOP primary against former President Donald Trump. And while Democrats know how to beat Trump, Wilson said, DeSantis could pose a new and more difficult challenge.
“They’ll definitely be wondering, ‘What the hell were we doing?'” Wilson said. “‘Why didn’t we bleed him? Why didn’t we bomb him? Why didn’t we let him spend $50 million?’ They don’t know how to fight.”
That could be a tough sell for donors who typically don’t think that far ahead, the Florida fundraiser said.
“I think voters care more about wallet issues and whether they can decide what to do with their own bodies or whether they can afford gas than when Ron DeSantis becomes president in 2024,” they said.
Major donors failed to show up this year
Other major donors in 2018 have not yet said whether they are financially committed to Florida this cycle. The national unions that contributed seven-figure sums to Gillum’s efforts declined to share their plans for the fall.
“While we don’t comment on dollars, you’d better believe we’re going to support candidates who put working people first, as opposed to political extremists who oppose the president’s agenda to lower the prices of prescription drugs. and who are determined to take away people’s rights and freedoms,” said Nick Voutsinos, spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME donated $1.5 million to Gillum’s effort.
Earlier this month, the American Federation of Teachers donated $500,000 to Crist’s political committee — half of what the Gillum union gave in its race. A spokesperson for the organization would not say whether it will bet another half a million dollars here.
West Palm Beach businessman Daniel Abraham, a frequent Democratic donor who contributed $1 million to Gillum’s political committee, would not discuss his political donation, a representative said. Attempts to reach Donald Sussman, a mega-donor to the Clintons who gave Gillum $1.5 million, were unsuccessful, but he has not yet contributed to the Florida Democrats this cycle.
Orlando’s attorney John Morgan, a longtime Democratic donor, said he thinks Crist has “$100 million in brand awareness” and therefore doesn’t need the kind of resources other candidates might have to make a serious effort. challenge for DeSantis. First elected to the state legislature in the 1990s, Crist is a former Republican governor who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014 before winning three terms to the U.S. House.
Morgan gave Gillum $250,000 four years ago, but he doesn’t know if he’ll cash a check for Crist, who he once employed at his law firm.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Morgan said. “I think Charlie has a very, very hard road to go. And I’ve bullied money before.’
One major donor is definitely on the sidelines this cycle. NextGen America, the forward-thinking organization funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, donated $2.8 million to Gillum in 2018. But NextGen has since halted donations to individual candidates, President and Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez said. The organization also does not intend to help register and mobilize voters in Florida, as it did four years ago.
“It’s more a matter of resources,” she said. “We would like to be in every state, but we knew we had done a good job in Florida and we needed to invest in other crucial Senate races in other states.”
Among all the other headwinds Democrats face here, the reality is that Florida — a state of 21 million people across 10 media markets, some of which require advertisements in Spanish — is a notoriously expensive state to run a campaign about the entire state.
A particularly brutal realignment process also left Florida with few competitive legislative races in the House and State that could spark donor interest in flipping a state, said Alexandra Acker-Lyons, a political adviser who advises Democratic donors. .
“In Florida, races are won and lost at 1 percent, but sometimes it costs $100 million to get that 1 percent,” said Acker-Lyons. “But we can’t write off Florida. That is a suicide mission as a party.’
Can the DeSantis name also raise money for the Democrats?
By framing the race around DeSantis’ bruises for a possible race for president in 2024, the Crist campaign hopes to convince donors to jump back to Florida. DeSantis has become one of the most recognizable political figures in the country, and few Republicans seem to put themselves in the shoes of the Democrats more than the Florida executive.
After Crist secured the nomination, the DGA sent a massive message to his donor list centered around beating DeSantis. According to a source with knowledge of the party’s finances, this cycle raised more money than any post-primary fundraising email.
Crist’s team also notes that DeSantis defeated Gillum in 2018 alone by 32,000 votes out of the 8.2 million votes cast. They don’t believe the state has shifted drastically to the right in the four years since, even as the number of registered Republicans here surpasses by about 200,000, a total reversal from the past decade.
“Over the past 22 years, the governor’s mansion has been won by low single digits,” Crist strategist Joshua Karp told CNN. “That’s not to say we don’t have the burden of proving we have a game plan to win. That’s what we’re trying to do and we believe it works.”
But while the wafer-thin race seemed to cement Florida’s status as a perennial swing state, it also suggested that the Democrats here lack the killer instinct to push a competitive race over the top. Indeed, some Democratic donors are feeling snake-bittened by Gillum’s minor defeat after helping him raise $53 million, Acker-Lyons said.
“Florida was the red dot in our happy blue dance. It was hard for people,” she said.