TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Democrats are a mess and have spent the past year stumbling from one crisis to another. That doesn’t mean they lack potential candidates who want to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis next year.
A string of electoral losses, an internal schism over the leadership of the state party and a series of self-inflicted public relations debacles, such as applying for pandemic relief funds, have demoralized local operatives, staff and rainmakers. But ousting the Republican governor is one of the few unifying forces for Democrats — a mantra that has fueled an ever-expanding field of those angling to take on DeSantis in 2022.
“Democrats want nothing more than to beat DeSantis next year, and regardless of how many people run, primary voters will ultimately rally around who is perceived to be the strongest in the general,” said Ben Pollara, a Miami-based Democratic consultant who has advised Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. Pollara isn’t aligned with any potential gubernatorial candidate but has worked on successful statewide ballot initiatives for raising the minimum wage and medical marijuana and is warming up a project to sink Sen. Marco Rubio’s reelection.
DeSantis has taken repeated victory laps throughout a global pandemic, embraced the Republican Party’s right flank and enjoyed his status as one of Donald Trump’s favorite governors — and the governor of the former president’s adopted home state. Democrats hope those strengths that keep DeSantis humming with the GOP base prove to be weak points in his political armor even as Florida Democrats keep falling short at the ballot box and haven’t won a gubernatorial race since 1994.
The party, though divided over its direction and facing deep financial problems — not to mention a series of unforced errors like letting health insurance for party staffers lapse — is desperate for a win.
Some of the names actively considering a run for governor have long been in circulation, having openly talked about it in person or on social media. They include Fried, the party’s only statewide elected official, who is often chided by the party’s left flank, and state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a liberal Orlando Democrat who does some of that prodding.
But now other Democrats are being touted as potential challengers and several have said they are considering it: State Sen. Annette Taddeo; Republican-turned-Democrat, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, and Rep. Val Demings — a manager of the House’s first impeachment of Trump. Some supporters of Rep. Al Lawson, a moderate congressman from mostly rural north Florida, have lauded him as someone to watch as well. (Lawson, however, told POLITICO on Tuesday while he was “flattered” a run for governor “is not on my radar right now.”)
Still, no matter who emerges as Democrats’ 2022 nominee, the candidate will run into a Florida GOP emboldened by 2020 victories, a well-oiled political infrastructure and a vocal former president parked in the state.
“To say they have a head start is a major understatement,” said former Rep. Gwen Graham, who mounted her own unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 and has emerged as a caustic critic of DeSantis since he won.
Early in his term, DeSantis’ approval ratings approached the 70s as he pushed a slate of bipartisan policy priorities that included boosting funding for the environment and increasing pay for state teachers. Those numbers dropped after the start of the coronavirus pandemic as DeSantis’ rejected a mask mandate, emphasized a quick reopening of the state’s economy and embraced Trump’s response which earned the disdain of many state Democrats.
Still, his approval ratings remain just above water. Numbers shared with POLITICO by Republican pollster Ryan Tyson this week showed DeSantis with a 52 percent job approval rating in late January, with a 3.5-point margin of error. The figures from Tyson, who has nailed most statewide races in the past few cycles, including Trump and DeSantis wins in the state, track closely with a Florida Chamber of Commerce poll that had DeSantis’ approval rating at 54 percent.
Crist, who is now a congressman, said he also wants back in the game and has been receiving calls from people urging him to consider making yet another run for his old job.
“I am seriously considering at this point running for governor in 2022,” Crist said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Fried is one of just two Democrats to win a statewide election in the last 14 years, making her the out-of-the gate frontrunner in conversations about 2022. She has openly feuded with DeSantis from her post as the only Democrat on the Florida Cabinet. And she’s tried to assert herself as party leader, hosting several state House and Senate Democrats at her Tallahassee home shortly after the November election.
“Everyone was there, there were a lot of people,” said co-House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, a South Florida Democrat. “It was about strategy for 2022, and how we can kind of rebound. There was not, as I recall, any real talk about her [Fried] and governor. It was a broader focus on 2022 strategy.”
Fried has begun to put together the makings of a campaign operation. On Tuesday, she released a hefty 30-page plan of places she said the state could potentially partner with President Joe Biden’s fledgling administration. “We support you, we are here to partner with you,” Fried said of Biden during a press conference in the Florida Capitol, drawing an obvious contrast with DeSantis.
Eskamani, 30, is the first Iranian American elected to the Florida Legislature and is the most prominent name from the party’s progressive lane to openly talk about running for governor. Still, she is not going to rush her decision.
“I think it’s really important that I make a decision based on the future of the people of Florida and if there is a path to a victory for someone like me to win,” Eskamani said in a recent phone interview.
She has been a critic of her party’s own leadership, including Fried and former Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo. Eskamani has called on Democrats to stop taking campaign contributions from corporations, which has built her deep bench of support in the progressive activist community.
“Of the names that have been floated, I think the most exciting and energizing is Anna Eskamani,” said Thomas Kennedy, a longtime Democrat activist who was recently elected to the Democratic National Committee as part of a slate trying to push internal reforms of the state party. “Not only does she energize the base, but she flipped a swing district and we reelected, won in Trump precincts and is renowned for her work helping people through the unemployment crisis.”
Taddeo, another critic of the party’s leadership, said her decision about whether to run for governor shouldn’t be surprising. She’s ran as lieutenant governor candidate when Crist made a failed bid for governor in 2014. She said the fact that she is Columbia-born and from Miami should also be key factors after a 2020 election cycle that saw Democrats’ once massive advantage in Miami-Dade County and with Hispanic voters weaken.
“We have to fight for the Hispanic vote,” said Taddeo, who came to the U.S. as a teenager, in an interview. “I think that what we saw is that Miami-Dade is a big problem for Democrats.”
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