Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a clear pathway to running for president in 2024, emerging from the coronavirus pandemic as the most recognizable Republican governor in the country.
But Democrats, hoping to reverse years of letdown in marquee races and mismanagement inside the state party, are eager to stop the Republican governor before he even gets to the starting line of a presidential bid, viewing the 2022 gubernatorial election in Florida as a chance to cut short the governor’s surge.
“It is always easier to stop someone’s rise sooner rather than later,” said David Turner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “You don’t lose your race for governor and then run for president.”
DeSantis burnished his position as a conservative media darling on Thursday when he signed a controversial bill aimed at curbing access to voting in the state during a so-called exclusive event with Fox News. A group of organizations swiftly filed a lawsuit against the bill, but the point already had been made: DeSantis has the Fox News platform and can use it to deliver on Republican priorities.
“Me signing this bill says: Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency and this is a great place for democracy,” DeSantis said on Fox after the signing.
Central to DeSantis’ argument has been unabashedly taking credit for helming Florida through the coronavirus pandemic, a leadership role that often found him running afoul of top health experts and the subject of mockery from comedians and political rivals, alike. Florida, however, is economically booming as vaccines are distributed and focus on the pandemic wanes, and DeSantis can proudly tout that Florida fared better than many similarly sized states.
Some Democrats worry the odds against them are too great. In addition to DeSantis’ rising profile, Florida has become the cultural center of the Republican Party with former President Donald Trump permanently moving to the state he won by more than 3 percentage points in 2020. The Democratic Party also has history working against them: Florida, a state that has not had a Democratic governor this century, has politically moved away from Democrats and the party that controls the White House traditionally suffers losses in the subsequent midterms.
But some Democrats in positions of power in Florida believe it is critical for the party to mount a well-funded, fully engaged campaign against the Florida Republican, both to stop DeSantis’ rise and to help the beleaguered Florida Democratic Party turn things around after years of bungling management.
“This last session of the legislature that just ended is the best example of why it is critically important to make sure DeSantis is a one-term governor,” said Daniel Henry, chair of the Duval County Democratic Party, citing – among other things – the restrictive voting bill. “He essentially used the last session as an audition to conservatives for his rumored campaign to be president in 2024.”
Florida will be home to two high-profile statewide midterm races in 2022: DeSantis’ reelection bid and a Senate contest in which Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will be up for reelection. But it is clear over a year out that the chance to knock the Republican governor off his pedestal is far more enticing to Florida Democrats.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“It is one of the most critical things we have to do,” Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Marcus Dixon said of knocking down DeSantis in 2022. “It will be one of the highest focuses of the Florida Democratic Party for the next 18 months or so.”
A messy primary looms
The first issue facing Democrats in their bid to unseat DeSantis is a primary that has the makings of a messy affair.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the GOP more than a decade ago and represents the St. Petersburg area as a Democrat in Congress, announced a bid on Tuesday. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat currently holding statewide office in Florida, has been eyeing a run against DeSantis for months and is expected to get into the race soon. And Rep. Val Demings, a Black congresswoman who rose to national prominence during the second Trump impeachment, is said to be considering her own gubernatorial bid and posted a video this month where she declared she was “ready for the moment.”
The possibility for a raucous primary has some Florida Democrats worried – especially considering Florida often sets their primary in late August, making it difficult for the eventual nominee to shift to a general election campaign in just a few months.
“We need to get the primary situation figured out,” said a Florida Democratic operative with ties to the gubernatorial race. “Our stupid primaries are so late in the year, you essentially have two and a half months… so people start making up their mind before you even have a chance to introduce yourself.”
More upbeat Democrats note that the primary in 2018 was both crowded and happened late, but eventual nominee Andrew Gillum still raised significant money and came close to defeating DeSantis.
“I don’t think we lost the general election because of the primary,” said Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic operative in Florida who managed Obama’s efforts in the state in 2008.
The bigger question Democrats face, Schale said, is one about leadership at the Florida Democratic Party and “whether or not (Party Chair) Manny Diaz and donors step up to build the sort of infrastructure that we have never really had outside of a presidential election in Florida.”
“When you look at voter registration numbers since 2012, it is pretty obvious the efforts to build real long-term infrastructure in Florida has not worked,” he said.
Democrats in Florida still maintain a more than 100,000 voter registration advantage in the state, but the gap between Republicans and Democrats has been closing for years. In 2017, Democrats held a more than 260,000 voter advantage.
John Morgan, a well-known Florida Democratic donor, put his assessment of the Florida Democratic Party over the years more bluntly: “Amateur hour.”
Dixon, the top operative at the state party, did not dispute the organization’s past struggles, rife with mismanagement and often sidelined by national campaigns. But he said the current organization, under the leadership of former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz as chair, has learned from those mistakes.
“What is clear is there is no substitute for on-the-ground organization and voter registration,” said Dixon. “We haven’t really had a year-round, statewide infrastructure that is communicating and engaging with voters. We have to do that.”
That, Dixion added, is critical, especially because Republicans are closing the state’s registration gap.
“At that point in time, there was even some level of wiggle room there and we lost,” he said of 2016. “There is no room for error the more they catch up to us on voter registration.”
Once Democrats get through the primary, both the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic National Committee plan to spend money to help oust DeSantis in November 2022, much like both did when Gillum ran against the would-be governor in 2018. But all Democrats who spoke to CNN acknowledged that the late primary is a factor when running against a well-known incumbent.
“Listen, I am a Jaguars fan,” Schale said, citing the perennial losing football team in Jacksonville. “I always feel like impending doom is a real thing. That doesn’t mean every Sunday I am screaming as loud as I can.”
DeSantis’ rise and the Trumpification of Florida
DeSantis’ rise has coincided with a political shift that has made Florida the undisputed home of the current iteration of the Republican Party, a newfound pedestal defined by former President Donald Trump’s decision to move from his former home state of New York to the sunny confines of Palm Beach and his Mar-a-Lago estate.
“The heart and soul of the Republican party is certainly in Florida right now,” said Chris Hartline, longtime Florida operatives and spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, an organization led by Florida Sen. Rick Scott. “Republicans in Florida are giving Republicans nationally a road map.”
Republicans like Hartline point to the recent GOP dominance in a state seen as a battleground but one Trump carried twice and where all major statewide offices, other than agriculture secretary, are currently held by Republicans.
In the late 2000s, after former President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 by nearly 3 percentage points, many Democrats believed the demographic make-up of Florida would have it trending blue for years to come. The party won again in 2012 when Obama narrowly beat Republican Mitt Romney by less than 1 percentage point, but that is when the good news ended for the party.
The calculations about demographic shifts in Florida were off, belied by the fact that many Northerners, some of whom were conservative, fled to Florida for the low taxes, low government regulations and, of course, the sun. In 2016, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by just over 1 percentage point. He then bested Biden four years later, despite losing the presidency.
That diaspora has helped politicians like DeSantis, who got a considerable boost in recent months when Trump – one of the state’s newest residents – lauded the governor and said he “would be considered” as a possible running mate if the former president ran again in 2024.
“I endorsed Ron and after I endorsed him he took off like a rocket ship. He’s done a great job as governor,” Trump said on Fox Business, going on to describe the governor as a “friend.”
That Trump bump, along with the 2024 speculation, has Republicans looking to protect DeSantis’ seat, planning as if the governor will be a key Democratic target.
“Democrats are going to come for Ron DeSantis,” said a Republican operative. “They will target him in order to see if they can poke holes in his armor ahead of a potential 2024 bid.”