Democrats face bleak outlook in Florida
MELBOURNE BEACH, Fla. — Democrats are confronting an increasingly bleak outlook in Florida ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
The list of concerns is long. The latest voter registration numbers out of Florida show Democrats’ long-held voter registration advantage over Republicans shrinking to less than 24,000, down from about 100,000 at the beginning of the year.
The state Democratic Party is also facing a yawning fundraising gap with the Florida GOP. Some national donors are taking a wait-and-see approach to political giving in the Sunshine State after a disappointing 2020 cycle for Democrats that saw the party’s 2018 gains virtually wiped out.
At the same time, Democrats are facing daunting structural challenges, including Republican-led redistricting and a controversial new election law pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that puts new restrictions on the collection of mail-in ballots and the use of drop boxes.
“It feels a little bit like we’re kind of set up to fail,” one Florida Democratic official said. “It’s not any one person’s fault. A lot of these problems have existed for years. But for a party that has been decimated in the last few elections and especially the last one, I’m not seeing a sense of urgency yet.”
The official pointed to Democrats’ narrowing voter registration advantage as the top issue facing the party in 2022. 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.
But that once-sizable advantage has been decimated, falling in the most recent tally of registered voters to just 23,551. Steve Schale, a longtime Florida Democratic strategist, warned in a blog post on Friday that, without a serious course correction, the party is at risk of falling behind Republicans by the end of 2021.
“Without a full-frontal, professional and accountable partisan effort to turn it around, sometime before the end of this year, there will be more Republicans registered in Florida than Democrats — that has NEVER happened before,” Schale wrote. “And, given their voters have higher turnout scores — this isn’t a great place to start.”
Florida Democrats are hoping to make up the lost ground. Florida Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz told Politico that the party is “trying to reverse” the voter registration trend and has already signed up 20,000 voters this month. But he still acknowledged that regaining Democrats’ voter registration edge “does not happen overnight.”
Still, with the 2022 midterm elections 14 months away, time is of the essence.
Democrats are hoping to take out both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) next year, as well as regain two key South Florida House seats that Republicans flipped in November.
They’re also defending the St. Petersburg-area House seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Crist (D), who is forgoing reelection to run for governor. What’s more, some Democrats are concerned that legislators could redraw the district lines to bring in more likely Republican voters, potentially giving the GOP a leg up.
None of those tasks will be easy. After raising $5.5 million in August, DeSantis’s political committee now boasts $53 million in the bank. His top Democratic opponents, Crist and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, have $2.48 million and $2.82 million in cash on hand, respectively.
Likewise, the Florida Democratic Party had only about $406,000 in its federal account at the end of August, while the state GOP reported more than $6.3 million in cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings posted on Monday.
Some Democrats are also worried about candidate recruitment ahead of 2022. While the race for governor has drawn high-profile Democrats like Crist and Fried, and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) has already launched a bid to oust Rubio, Democrats have yet to field top-tier candidates in the races for state attorney general or agriculture commissioner.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) officially kicked off her reelection bid earlier this month, while Florida state Senate President Wilton Simpson (R) has launched a bid for agriculture commissioner with the blessing of former President Trump.
Democrats are also watching closely to see if former Rep. Donna Shalala (D) makes another run for her old Miami House seat after losing to Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R) last year. Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) is also said to be weighing another run against Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R) in Florida’s 26th District.
“Everyone’s looking at redistricting to see how the districts are going to look,” one Florida Democratic strategist said. “I think that’s kind of putting a hold on things for now. Everything gets pushed off and pushed off. But the problem is, Republicans already know who their candidates are going to be.”
Democrats point to a few reasons for optimism. Recent polls show DeSantis’s approval numbers slipping amid a COVID-19 surge in his state. He has also faced backlash over his efforts to preclude school districts from requiring students to wear face masks, with officials in even some Republican-leaning parts of the state moving to buck the governor’s wishes.
Meanwhile, the Florida Democratic Party has smoothed over the worst of its financial problems after entering 2021 with less than $61,000 in its federal account and more than $860,000 in debt. Shortly after Diaz took over as chair in January, the party received much-needed cash injections from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Miami health care executive Mike Fernandez.
Yet despite the state’s history of ultra-close races, Republicans have come out on top more often than not. Floridians haven’t elected a Democratic governor since 1994, and Trump carried the state twice in a row, winning it in 2020 by more than 3 percentage points — a relative landslide by Florida standards.
For some experts, that has raised questions about whether Florida still deserves its reputation as the country’s largest swing state.
“Democrats just either get wiped out or come agonizingly close and lose,” said Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
“Florida is still a battleground, just based on our recent election history and statistics. We have had a lot of close statewide elections. But that label might have to be withdrawn if Republicans sweep up another time or two.”