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Midterms could cement Florida’s status as a red state

ORLANDO, Fla. – Democrats fear that 2022 could be the year Florida cements itself as a red state.

With little more than a week to go before Election Day, Republicans appear poised to once again dominate the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is running well ahead of his Democratic rival, former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), while Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is struggling to break through in her bid to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). 

Of course, one election isn’t indicative of a trend, in and of itself. But a strong Republican showing next month would add to the GOP’s winning streak in Florida at a time when many Democrats are already questioning their future prospects in a state that was once seen as the nation’s premier battleground.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting us to run away with this in 2022,” one Florida Democrat said. “But we also have to acknowledge that there are some deeper issues here. Florida is an extremely populist state. It’s also a conservative state.”

The outlook is already ominous for Florida Democrats. The number of registered Republican voters surpassed the number of registered Democrats last fall for the first time in the state’s modern political history. And that edge has only expanded since then. 

In November 2021, there were about 6,000 more registered Republican voters than there were Democrats. As of the end of September, that advantage stood at nearly 300,000, according to data collected by the state. By comparison, in 2008, when former President Obama carried Florida by about 200,000 votes, there were nearly 700,000 more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans.

In another worrisome sign for Florida Democrats, Republicans pulled ahead in early voting on Thursday. Democrats have typically relied on building up a strong early vote advantage to make up for shortfalls in Election Day voting, which tends to be dominated by Republicans.

At the same time, the state Democratic Party is facing upheaval once again. Thomas Kennedy, a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), called on Thursday for state party Chair Manny Diaz to resign after the midterms, saying the party needs new leadership if Democrats want to remain a political force in Florida. 

In an interview, Kennedy acknowledged that some of the party’s woes in Florida are outside of its immediate control and that he never expected Democrats to make major gains in Florida in 2022, given the tough political environment facing the party nationally.

But he said that Democrats have also failed to build up the kind of long-term organizing and political structures in Florida that have given Republicans an upper hand in the state.

“There are the external factors — gerrymandering, corporate interests that are stacked against us, population growth,” Kennedy said. “But we have to acknowledge as Democrats, our infrastructure is bad. Our messaging sucks. We neglect Hispanic outreach, Haitian outreach.

“We went all in with the abortion issue — which was really important and something we should talk about — but we completely neglected the economic issue and that was a problem with national Democrats overall.” 

While the Republican dominance in Florida isn’t new — the GOP has controlled both the governor’s mansion and the state legislature for more than two decades — the state’s political shift has come into starker relief in the six years since former President Donald Trump first carried the state. 

Former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a longtime staple of the state’s Democratic politics, narrowly lost reelection in 2018 to then-Gov. Rick Scott. That same year, Democrats missed an opportunity to recapture the governor’s mansion when their candidate Andrew Gillum fell to DeSantis.

The 2020 elections were even more alarming for Democrats. Trump won Florida for a second time, racking up an even-larger 3-point margin of victory — a relative landslide in a state where elections are often decided by 1 point or less. That win also saw him make gains among Hispanic voters, particularly in heavily Democratic South Florida. 

Now, with just over a week to go before Election Day and early voting already underway, Democrats are bracing for another tough outcome.

Florida is set to host the fewest number of competitive House races in years after the Republican-controlled state legislature approved a new congressional map pushed by DeSantis that created four new Republican-leaning seats and slashed the number of highly competitive districts by four. 

In the closely watched race for governor, DeSantis has amassed a sizable lead over Crist, running nearly 10 points ahead of him in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average of the race. His political operation — including his campaign and a state-level political action committee — have raised more than $177 million, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics. Crist, meanwhile, has pulled in only a small fraction of that.

The state’s U.S. Senate race isn’t looking much brighter for Democrats. Rubio holds a 7-point lead over Demings in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. In an interview with The Associated Press published earlier this week, Demings acknowledged the challenges her party faces in reaching voters.

“We have to do a better job of telling our stories and clearly demonstrating who’s truly on the side of people who have to go to work every day,” Demings told the wire service.

If the polls paint an accurate picture of what’s to come — and of course there’s no guarantee they will — the 2022 midterms could mark a stunning end of an era for the state, where margins of victories are no longer measured by a few hundred or thousand votes.

The GOP’s success in Florida, experts and strategists say, is thanks to a long list of factors. Retirees have long flocked to the state to live out their twilight years, and many of those seniors simply tend to be more conservative. 

At the same time, Florida’s population swelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the state gained a reputation as a refuge from pandemic-era restrictions and mandates imposed in other states. Republicans say that has swayed many new residents toward the GOP. 

On a stretch of I-95 not far from the Florida-Georgia border, that theory is summed up on a billboard that reads: “Welcome to Florida. Remember why you came. Vote red.”

“Certainly, over time, population growth has been a primary driver of political change in Florida going back decades,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “And it certainly has fueled the rise of Republicans in the state.

“Over time, as more and more people move to Florida — we’ve had 2 [million] to 3 million people a decade move to this state for about five to six decades in a row — that’s absolutely going to change things.”

It’s not yet clear whether Florida’s rightward shift will be a permanent fixture of the state’s politics. Florida is notoriously unpredictable and the political winds could change in Democrats’ favor in the coming years, Kennedy, the DNC member, said. 

“I don’t think that Florida is going to be forever a red state,” Kennedy said. “Things can change. But what we need to focus on is building an infrastructure and a functional and robust state party. We need to prove that we can at least mount a good challenge; that we can still give the Republicans a run for their money.”

Tags Charlie Crist Charlie Crist Florida midterms Marco Rubio Marco Rubio Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis Val Demings Val Demings

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