Democrats say DeSantis stumble gives hope, but campaign needs work

By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau, USA TODAY NETWORK-FLORIDA, Sept 4, 2021.

TALLAHASSEE – With recent polls showing Gov. Ron DeSantis losing support among Floridians as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, Florida Democrats sense a political opening.

But DeSantis’ stumbles also are being greeted with a cold dose of reality among  Democrats exiled from state leadership for more than two decades and dealing with a host of internal problems.

“The governor right now has a huge war chest and a base that’s ravenous for what he’s serving up,” said Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, co-leader of the Florida House Democrats. “Regardless of poll numbers, those are big positives for anyone heading into a campaign.”

Still, voters give DeSantis middling approval ratings and are similarly mixed about reelecting him next year, according to surveys by Quinnipiac University and St. Pete Polls. The findings encourage his opponents.

“It’s closer this week than it was two or three weeks ago,” Jenne said of the looming race and Democratic prospects.

Field may grow in Florida governor’s race

With a third Democrat looking poised to enter the governor’s race this month, activists acknowledge that beating DeSantis will happen only with a full-cylindered effort by a party whose history shows it more often sputters to the finish line on Election Day.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat first elected in 2017, has been meeting with elected officials and fundraisers and is expected to decide in a couple of weeks about adding her candidacy to those of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, a former Republican governor of Florida, who both entered the race in late spring.

Taddeo was Crist’s running mate in 2014, in his unsuccessful bid to stop U.S. Sen. Rick Scott from winning a second term as governor. Fund-raising has been a challenge for both Fried and Crist who, combined, have about $3.8 million in cash.

By contrast, DeSantis is sitting on almost $53 million in his Friends of Ron DeSantis campaign. The governor, who hasn’t officially announced his candidacy, attended fundraisers in Wisconsin, Michigan and New Jersey last month and has been drawing contributions nationally powered by speculation he could be a Republican presidential contender in 2024.

First, though, comes reelection. And Democrats hope to derail his course there.

But it’s an uphill climb.

Floridians don’t often reject governors seeking reelection – Republican Gov. Bob Martinez was the most recent exception, losing in 1990 to Lawton Chiles, the state’s last Democratic governor.

And presidential midterm elections usually are troubling for the party in the White House. The Biden administration will have its hands full keeping Democratic control of Congress, although it is certain to provide some help in Florida.

Still, Taddeo’s possible entry is fueled by uneasiness among some labor leaders and other core Democratic groups about the prospects of Fried or Crist.

That’s prompted the Colombian-born senator to consider running, potentially adding more diversity to a Democratic ticket already looking like it will be topped by U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat from Orlando and former President Donald Trump impeachment manager, who is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Demings is seen as helping Democrats power turnout among needed Black voters next year, which could also aid whoever wins the party’s primary for governor next August 23.

Taddeo’s draw to the race also is built on the need for Democrats to do better in Miami-Dade County, which President Joe Biden carried last year but by a margin one-quarter that of Hillary Clinton four years earlier.

Turnout problems for Democratic candidates

Biden’s lackluster performance in Miami-Dade helped Trump easily win Florida last fall. A Miami-Dade Democratic seat also was turned by Republicans in the state Senate and two congressional seats held by Democrats there also flipped.

Statewide, Jenne’s House Democrats lost five seats, further setting back the party in a Legislature commanded by the GOP for 25 years.

Democratic support in Miami-Dade also has likely been shaken since the election by what many Cuban-Americans saw as a lack of forceful steps by the Biden administration to back protests which broke out in communist Cuba during the summer.

DeSantis and other Florida Republicans seized the moment – at least in rhetorical terms, demanding action. Even Taddeo said at the time that Biden should have responded with a “tear down this wall” demand, recalling President Ronald Reagan’s speech to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall 34 years ago.

“Politics is always about moments in time and for Democrats, if we’re going to seize opportunities, we have to be there with our strongest candidates who can rally voters through the finish line,” said Christian Ulvert, an advisor to Taddeo.

DeSantis was clearly doing better in polls pre-pandemic, but now surveys show Floridians are almost equally divided about his performance as governor and whether he should be re-elected.

Quinnipiac also found that more Floridians disapprove of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and public schools, with 60% supporting mandatory masks in schools, something the governor is fighting fiercely to block.

Almost 60% also said they didn’t want DeSantis to run for president.

According to the St. Pete Polls, Crist was narrowly leading DeSantis in a possible head-to-head matchup, while the governor holds the edge over Fried.

Bad trends for Democrats

While more Democrats and independents give DeSantis low marks, Republicans overwhelmingly favor the governor. And that points to another problematic area for Democrats in 2022: The advantage the party held in voter registration throughout Florida history is almost gone.

Even when Trump was elected in 2016, there were 327,438 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida.

But the GOP has increased money and staff toward voter registration the past two election cycles. By last fall, that 2016 margin was slashed to 134,242 voters and now sits even smaller – at 54,046 voters out of 14.4 million overall.

Given the trend, by next election season, Republicans could be the state’s largest party in terms of voter registration, with no-party-affiliated voters also accounting for more than one-quarter of the electorate.

The Democratic Party’s failure to drive get-out-the-vote efforts last fall was blamed for at least some of the electoral failures in Miami-Dade. Whether that can be turned around is a critical question hovering over the party.

There are voter registration drives underway, mostly by Democratic-allied organizations, including Florida Ground Game and Mi Vecino Florida and Equal Ground, the latter groups focused heavily on Hispanic and Black communities.

“It’s definitely de-centralized, but the party is also hiring field staff for voter drives,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, whose People Power for Florida political committee added nine staff this summer for its statewide voter registration campaign.

Bringing Democratic numbers up is critical – she said, especially when going up against a governor who has focused largely on appealing to a conservative base of voters who, so far, seem unwavering.

“It’s like (DeSantis) is trying to run to satisfy what he thinks is 51% of the state, and that’s how he expects he’ll win,” Eskamani said. “Normally, as a candidate you try to reach out to the others – you don’t isolate the other 49%. But that’s what we’re seeing with this governor.”

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport