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‘DeSantis seems unstoppable’: Florida Dems worry they can’t beat the governor

Florida Democrats are increasingly worried that the candidates trying to unseat Ron DeSantis can’t stop the popular Republican governor from winning re-election as the GOP solidifies its hold on the state’s political infrastructure.

The Democratic primary between Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami) is just four months away, but some operatives and the party faithful say they don’t believe any can realistically take on DeSantis. The perceived weak slate of candidates, combined with DeSantis’ brand of bully politics, has even led national donors to shy away from the state.

It’s a problem exacerbated by newly drawn congressional maps championed by DeSantis that give Republicans a 20-8 majority, providing national Democrats even less of a reason to send money and resources to Florida.

“It is becoming serious [for Democrats],” said Alex Berrios, who served as Palm Beach County regional field director for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It’s not unsalvageable, but the situation is becoming critical.”

A two-decade absence from the Florida governor’s mansion has left Democrats functionally powerless in the third most populous state in the country. But Democrats face other problems too, including President Joe Biden’s unpopularity, rising prices due to inflation and a statewide electoral landscape that increasingly does not favor Democrats.

But the biggest hurdle is DeSantis, who has amassed a $100 million-plus war chest and is popular in the state and across the country for embracing culture war issues and attacking “woke” corporations and Biden’s policies while defending LGBTQ-related school measures such as Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” measure, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents.

“It is getting more difficult to make the Florida case to national donors,” said veteran Democratic consultant Ben Pollara. “The DeSantis thing is kind of a blessing and a curse. He is perceived as really strong ahead of a potential presidential run, which could scare people off, but also some Democrats really want to knock him off before he gets to that point.”

“That’s really true among the really wealthy progressive donor class,” he added. “The people who give a lot of money to this stuff are really appalled by the idea of him becoming president.”

Another veteran Florida Democratic fundraiser has an even blunter assessment.

“DeSantis seems unstoppable. He has $100 million in the bank, and we have three Tier B candidates I think a lot of people lack confidence in,” said the fundraiser, who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

The problem got worse, the fundraiser added, after the Republican-led Legislature caved to DeSantis during an April special legislative session and approved maps his office drew that gave Republicans 20 of the state’s 28 congressional districts, a significant edge compared to the current maps.

“That makes it even harder for us to get money here,” the fundraiser added. “Even the eight seats for Democrats are pretty much safe. It’s all another hurdle.”

It’s against that backdrop that the three main Democratic contenders gathered at Orlando’s Rosen Center hotel for a candidate forum on Friday night, the first primary season event that all three participated in. The event doubled as a fundraiser for the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida.


Each outlined relatively similar policy platforms of protecting the state’s environment, boosting funding for public education and pushing back on DeSantis’ hard-edged style of governing.

“He is doing this because he wants to run for president,” Taddeo said of the motivation behind DeSantis’ culture war agenda. “He only cares about being president. That’s why we must repeal every single one of those bills, and I will from the governor’s mansion.”

For the most part, the candidates did not attack each other, with the exception of Fried highlighting legislation Crist worked on as a state senator in the early 1990s that required inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

“A 1992 piece of legislation that, I’m sorry, someone on this stage worked on passing that forced individuals to serve 85 percent of their sentences,” Fried said. “We still have Black and brown men in our jail system who should have been let out.”

Crist did not directly respond, instead reserving negative comments for DeSantis, including the governor’s successful push to get lawmakers to repeal a special taxing district for Disney after the company opposed the “Parental Rights in Education” measure.

“It is amazing to me that any elected official in Florida would attack Mickey Mouse, that’s incredible to me,” he said. “But that’s where we are at.”

Crist, a former Republican governor-turned Democratic lawmaker, has consistently led in public polling. He’s received a recent wave of state and national endorsements, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He’s also raised more than $8 million — far less than DeSantis but $3 million more than Fried has brought in since she got in the race June 1, 2021.

“If you look at the three candidates, the polling has not changed much at all, Charlie Crist has been in the lead there and in fundraising, and most recently endorsements,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s unions and one of the biggest remaining groups backing Democrats in the state. “Fried has proven she can win statewide and has done a great job hitting DeSantis, but there has been a consistency with Crist leading of late.”

When asked about the enthusiasm-gap of the current Democratic slate, a spokesperson for Crist said his message is resonating with Democrats, Independent and Republicans who are tired of DeSantis.

“Charlie is not only way ahead of the Democratic field, he is mounting the strongest campaign to beat DeSantis in November,” Samantha Ramirez, his spokesperson, said. “Florida Democrats are mounting the first real coordinated campaign in modern state history, taking to heart lessons learned from past cycles.”

Fried became the first statewide elected Democrat since 2011 after narrowly winning four years ago, giving her a high profile perch to consistently hit DeSantis while carving out a position as titular head of the party and the front-runner for governor. Most Democrats have cheered Fried for taking shots at DeSantis over his pandemic response and affordable housing, among other issues, but see her campaign making key tactical errors that have bogged down momentum.

“Folks are not paying attention yet, they don’t even really know an election is coming. We are four months from primary day, and a lot of people have not gotten any direct voter contact,” Brown said. “I’m a young Black female living in the Tampa area. What targeted messages am I getting? I don’t really think I’m getting any of those.”


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