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Florida Democrats’ midterm fantasy faceoff: DeSantis vs. Demings

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Could an African American congresswoman from Orlando, Florida, change the course of presidential history? Maybe.

There is a lengthy list of high-profile and contentious races in 2022. But none compares to the national impact, intensity, influence and media coverage that Florida’s gubernatorial election will generate.

Let’s set the stage.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the nation’s most recognized political leaders, is running for reelection on a solid record of accomplishment. His reelection would be merely a pit stop on the road to his likely 2024 presidential bid. And, mirroring his uncomfortably close but successful 2018 “Fox News campaign,” DeSantis is again practically on the payroll of the popular cable network. 

Ridiculing his frequent appearances, the Orlando Sentinel editorial board chided the governor in an April 29 editorial, calling him the “mayor of Fox News” and “Fox’s golden child.” The board explained, “He’s been a guest on the network’s talk shows nearly a dozen times during the [legislative] session, one of more than 40 appearances during the past year, at least half of those coming in the first four months of this year.” They also called DeSantis the “P.T. Barnum of policy.”

The paper’s criticism is poignant since DeSantis’s most formidable opponent could be Orlando’s three-term Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.). With her “it factor” aura, Demings is busy raising her national media profile before her expected official announcement. The former Orlando police chief turned congresswoman was on Joe Biden’s VP shortlist after rising to prominence in early 2020 as a House manager during Donald Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial. Demings teased her gubernatorial intentions on Tuesday, tweeting, “Ready for the moment,” a video touting her rise from poverty.

But before Demings’s “moment” as the first woman and African American governor of the third most populous state, she must prove herself worthy by winning a crowded and competitive primary. After that, she must topple the popular DeSantis – widely considered the heir to Donald Trump and Republicans’ best hope to recapture the White House — assuming Trump does not run. 

If Demings is victorious, the mainstream media will crown her a trifecta rock star — politically slaying the Trump acolyte, crushing MAGA dreams and changing the 2024 GOP presidential nomination contest trajectory. More on that below, but first, some facts and history that make Demings’s dreams both plausible and a long shot. 

Demings’s two major primary opponents are also “ready for their moments,” and one is a double repeat. On May 4, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), the Sunshine State’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, formally announced his second gubernatorial bid as a Democrat. His first was in 2014, when he was defeated by incumbent Republican Rick Scott, who in 2018 was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Yet, the buzz for Crist is lackluster. He is a rich white guy, nearly age 65 and likely past his prime for statewide office.

The other primary opponent is Nikki Fried, a 43-year-old white woman who, as agriculture commissioner, is Florida’s highest-ranking elected Democrat. Fried has continuously knocked heads with DeSantis, and her press release about Florida’s recently concluded 2021 legislative session accused DeSantis of running an “authoritarian regime.” But Fried has not yet caught fire, and Republicans consider her to be DeSantis’s weakest potential opponent.

Therefore, Demings’s imminent candidacy excites Democratic leaders since the party last won the governor’s mansion in 1994, when incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles narrowly defeated Republican Jeb Bush.

Demings’s chances could also be boosted by the outcome of the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary with its crowded field of seven candidates. The two most prominent names were Gwen Graham and Philip Levine. They came in second and third, splitting the white vote. That allowed little-known Andrew Gillum, the African American mayor of Tallahassee, to win in an upset with only 34 percent of the vote, compared to Graham’s 31 percent and Levine’s 20 percent. 

On the other side, DeSantis in 2018, then a congressman representing the Daytona area, was also a statewide unknown. Yet, due to his continuous presence on Fox News and flaunting unabashed love for President Trump, he eked out the smallest margin of victory – 49.59 percent to Gillum’s 49.19 percent – a difference of 32,463 votes out of more than 8 million cast. 

2018 feels like ancient history, given that DeSantis has risen to national prominence as a strong leader and fighter in the Trump mold. The overwhelming majority of Florida GOP voters are thrilled to support DeSantis’s reelection and proud to be his home base if he wins the 2024 GOP nomination — and perhaps Florida’s first native-born president, especially if a certain New York-born Palm Beach resident bows out of the race. 

We can expect Democratic candidates and non-Republican voters to argue that if reelected, DeSantis would quickly abandon his office, using his victory as a presidential platform to campaign and fundraise across the fruited plain. Hence, DeSantis’s toughest 2022 opponent is his own ambition.

Furthermore, Florida’s explosive growth could either help or hurt DeSantis, with the population surging from 20.8 million in 2018 to a projected 22.2 million by 2022. And as is often the case, new residents tend to bring their voting habits with them. Over the last year, due to a COVID exodus, 15 percent were from New York, 28 percent from Texas and 6 percent from California — a mixed political bag.

Suppose DeSantis and Demings were to faceoff in a general election. In that case, her race and gender would play a prominent role since Democrats tend to view politics through the lens of identity. That might give Demings an edge in what will be a nasty and close super-bowl-like election. Naturally, Trump will be a wild card, but it’s unlikely that DeSantis campaigns as a Trump acolyte. Still, Democrats will try to hang the former president around his neck. 

Finally, a DeSantis vs. Demings race could foreshadow how DeSantis might fare in 2024 or even in 2028 against another powerful woman of color currently one heartbeat away from the presidency.

No matter who wins, Florida’s gubernatorial election will impact America’s political stage.

Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor. She served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.

Tags 2022 elections Andrew Gillum Charlie Crist Donald Trump Florida Florida Democrats Florida gubernatorial election Florida Republicans Fox News Gwen Graham Joe Biden Orlando Sentinel Rick Scott Ron DeSantis Val Demings

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