Democrats face growing hurdles in bid to oust DeSantis
The race for Florida governor is entering a new, more hectic phase —– one that threatens to further complicate Democrats’ path to ousting Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in 2022.
With state Sen. Annette Taddeo’s long-anticipated entrance into the Democratic primary field this week, the party is staring down a potentially contentious nominating contest that could hobble its ability to coalesce behind a single candidate to take on DeSantis, a rising Republican star and one of the left’s most detested boogeymen.
At the same time, Democrats are grappling with a deep financial disadvantage against the sitting governor that could make it difficult to compete next year, especially if no single candidate breaks away from the pack before the 2022 primary. DeSantis’s political committee has more than $58 million in the bank — roughly 20 times as much as his nearest Democratic rivals.
“Really, Republicans have this consolidated funding and support behind DeSantis, which just isn’t something we have right now,” one Florida Democratic insider said. “He will be very difficult to beat. This is going to be a titanic task, but failure is not an option.”
Taddeo’s newly minted campaign puts her in direct competition with two other top Florida Democrats, Rep. Charlie Crist and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who, in addition to having already won statewide races in the past, have been in the race months longer than the Miami-area state senator.
But some Democrats say that Taddeo’s entrance into the race underscores another reality: that neither Crist nor Fried have managed to find the kind of traction among Democrats they’ll need to secure a clear path to the nomination.
“I think things have felt kind of stagnant for a while with Fried and Crist, and I think that’s where Annette Taddeo comes in,” one Democratic consultant said. “It’s the idea that there’s still plenty of room, even if she’s getting in a little later.”
Still, Taddeo is likely to face an uphill battle in the primary.
Not only is she entering the race later than her top Democratic rivals, but also her role as a sitting state senator means that she will be prohibited from raising money for her campaign once the two-month Florida legislative session begins on Jan. 11. That could complicate things for Taddeo, who has less than $250,000 in her political committee’s account, according to state campaign finance records.
Taddeo’s allies say that, as a Latina from Miami-Dade County, she has the ability to appeal to a critical piece of the electorate, especially in South Florida, where Republican gains in 2020 helped fuel former President Trump’s win in the state and oust two Democratic House incumbents.
“From my vantage point in South Florida, a lot of the grassroots activists, the party officers and the base are landing with Annette,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) member from Florida who is backing Taddeo for the nomination.
“She just has to go in and do the nitty gritty organizing work and also make the argument that she’s the best to complement the overall ticket,” he added. “But I think she’s going to do it. I’ve seen her do it in the past.”
Kennedy noted that such organizing can go a long way in the primary, pointing to the 2018 Democratic nominating contest that saw former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum clinch the nomination over a better-known and better-funded rival, former Rep. Gwen Graham. Gillum went on to narrowly lose to DeSantis in the general election.
Regardless of who emerges from the primary, Democrats are facing strong headwinds in Florida.
For one, the party has effectively been locked out of the governor’s mansion for more than two decades. And while Democrats have run a series of close statewide races, victory has repeatedly eluded them in recent years. Fried is now the only Democratic statewide elected official, and Republicans control both of Florida’s U.S. Senate seats after ousting former Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2018.
That makes the potential for a bruising and divisive gubernatorial primary all the more worrisome for Florida Democrats, who are grappling with their losses in the 2020 election.
So far, the primary has remained mostly tame. Intraparty fighting has been limited to small skirmishes, including one last month in which Fried knocked Crist for his past stance on abortion after the Supreme Court allowed a controversial Texas abortion law to go into effect.
Crist, a former Republican who served as Florida governor from 2007 until 2011, described himself years ago as “pro-life,” though he has since come out in support of abortion rights.
Since entering the race this week, Taddeo has signaled that she’s not looking for a fight with Crist, who picked her as his running mate during his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2014. After announcing her campaign on Monday, she noted she has “tremendous respect” for Crist but argued that she is the candidate better suited to rebuild the coalition of voters Democrats will need to win in 2022 if they want to beat DeSantis.
Crist echoed that sentiment this week in a statement welcoming Taddeo into the race, saying she “will bring spirit, heart, and important perspective” to the contest.
“I know and respect Annette Taddeo. We share a common goal of moving Florida forward and away from the negative and divisive politics damaging our state today under the failed leadership of Gov. DeSantis,” Crist said in a statement. “We, like most Floridians, know we can and must do better.”
But defeating DeSantis won’t be easy. While he remains a deeply detested figure among Democrats, he’s overwhelmingly popular with the GOP’s conservative base. And while DeSantis’s approval rating ticked downward amid a surge in new COVID-19 cases over the summer, one recent poll released by a Republican political action committee found him leading Crist in a head-to-head matchup by 8 points and Fried by 12 points.
Kennedy, the DNC member, said that “there’s a consensus within the party that Ron DeSantis needs to go” and expressed hope that Democrats “will unite behind” whichever candidate emerges from the primary.
“But I don’t think we can afford to have an overly nasty primary here,” Kennedy said. “We really need to remember that [DeSantis] is the ultimate target. As long as we do that, we stay focused and we do the outreach, we should be OK.”