Democratic donors hesitant on wading into Florida midterm fights
ORLANDO, Fla. – Some national Democratic donors are waiting on the sidelines in Florida, stirring concerns among Democrats in the Sunshine State who are preparing to take on Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in next year’s midterms.
The donor hesitancy comes as Democrats debate whether to invest in a state that has eluded their party in recent years. Florida Democrats suffered some of the worst defeats of any state party in the country last year, losing five seats in the GOP-controlled state House and two U.S. House seats that they had managed to flip in 2018.
Adding to their troubles was former President Trump’s 3.3-point margin of victory in Florida — a relative landslide in a state known for razor-thin election results — and the fact that he managed to cut into President Biden’s margins in Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade County.
“Democrats are being far more scrutinizing of Florida and the state of politics there,” one Democratic donor said. “We’ve suffered from a Charlie Brown syndrome in the state, where the football gets pulled out from under us, so I think we have to look at that with more scrutiny.”
At the same time, national Democrats have begun eyeing former Republican strongholds like Georgia and Arizona with more enthusiasm after the party scored critical victories in those states last year, prompting some Democrats to wonder whether Florida is worth the money.
“The last election showed that we don’t need to rely on Florida or Ohio – that the map has kind of changed,” another donor who has given to Democrats nationwide said. “Is there still a focus on beating Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio? Absolutely. But I think we also need to be more discerning about where and how much to give.”
The 2020 election marked the first time in nearly three decades that Florida did not vote with the overall winner of the presidential race.
Instead, Biden’s win was propelled by gains in former “blue wall” states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as by victories in Arizona and Georgia, where Democrats also managed to win three key Senate races that helped them recapture control of the upper chamber.
“I think a lot of donors – they’re looking at their investments and the fact that Joe Biden won the presidency without Florida,” Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from the Sunshine State, said. “They’re looking at DeSantis and the state of the Florida Democrats, and thinking that maybe their money makes more sense in Georgia or Arizona this time around.”
“It’s definitely concerning,” he added.
Taking on DeSantis and Rubio next year won’t be cheap. Florida is a notoriously expensive state for political donors and campaigns, and both DeSantis and Rubio have amassed huge war chests ahead of their 2022 reelection bids.
With nearly $6.3 million in the bank, Rubio is among the best-funded Republican incumbents facing reelection next year. DeSantis, a rising GOP star and potential 2024 presidential contender, hasn’t officially filed for reelection yet, but his political committee Friends of Ron DeSantis has raked in tens of millions of dollars this year and is sitting on more than $52 million in cash on hand.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said that it’s becoming harder to call Florida a swing state, at least in nonpresidential races. Democrats have been effectively locked out of the governor’s mansion for more than two decades, and Republicans have come out on top in most close statewide races in recent years.
“We’ve had a number of very close statewide races, many of them decided by less than 2 points. But almost all of them have gone to Republicans,” Jewett said. “I think for Democrats, they’re still hopeful. But being realistic, time and time again they’ve come up short, and that sort of gets in your head after a while.”
To be sure, there’s still money pouring into the efforts to oust Rubio and DeSantis.
Rep. Val Demings (Fla.), the top Democrat challenging Rubio, outraised the two-term Florida senator in the second quarter of the year, pulling in nearly $4.7 million in the weeks after launching her campaign.
The once cash-strapped Florida Democratic Party, meanwhile, has managed to smooth out much of its financial troubles after entering 2021 with less than $61,000 in its federal account and more than $860,000 in debt.
Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who took over as party chair in January, helped raise millions of dollars for the party early on this year as major political donors like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Miami health care executive Mike Fernandez chipped in six-figure sums.
Kennedy said that while Diaz had helped bring the state party back from the brink of financial ruin, Florida Democrats “aren’t where we need to be” heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
“He’s stabilized the party, he’s cut the debt, positions are being filled,” Kennedy said of Diaz’s tenure as party chair. “But there’s no magic wand or silver bullet to fix all the problems. In my opinion, it’s a brand problem and it’s a serious one.”
The Florida Republican Party still has millions of dollars more in cash on hand than the state Democratic Party, and DeSantis has so far blown his top Democratic challengers out of the water on the fundraising front.
Yet the governor still faces daunting political challenges. Florida is experiencing one of its worst moments of the coronavirus pandemic under his leadership. At the same time, Democrats have accused him of prioritizing his own political ambitions — a potential 2024 presidential bid — over the crises in his state.
There’s still more than enough time for national donors to jump into the Florida races. For one, the 2022 midterm elections are still 14 months away, and there are still competitive Democratic primaries that need to be settled.
In the governor’s race, for instance, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried are both vying for the Democratic nomination, while state Sen. Annette Tadeo, who served as Crist’s running mate during his unsuccessful 2014 gubernatorial bid, is considering her own campaign for governor.
Jewett, the political science professor, said that he still expects national donors to wade into Florida over the next year. But he also acknowledged that some may be having second thoughts.
“When push comes to shove, Democrats are going to end up getting quite a bit of money,” he said. “I don’t think national funders are going to abandon Florida yet. But I’m sure they’re starting to think about it.”
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