TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida has the White House and national Democrats stumped.
President Joe Biden’s policies loosening sanctions on Venezuela and easing restrictions on Cuba could be politically toxic in Latino-heavy South Florida. The administration was seen as making moves without considering political outcomes or improving Biden’s standing with a demographic key to winning the state.
And funds from national donor groups have dried up after Florida Democrats suffered stinging losses in recent years.
But Florida is also home to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 hopeful who takes shots at the president whenever the opportunity arises. So despite their dim prospects in the state, Democrats have an enormous incentive to engage there this year — if only to try to blunt the governor’s rise ahead of a presidential bid.
“If you were to ask me, does Florida give you as good a return on investment as other places? Clearly right now it does not,” Democratic National Committee Finance Director Chris Korge said in an interview. “We got our butts kicked in Florida recently. Our butts kicked.”
But, Korge added, his job is to build infrastructure — and national groups would be foolish not to try to make inroads in the state.
“I think the White House absolutely thinks we need to be engaged there now rather than waiting until 2024 when it becomes more expensive to stop [DeSantis],” he said. “We are going to be engaged in the midterm and, you can quote me on this, the DNC is absolutely not giving up on Florida.”
There has been a creeping sense among state-level Democrats that national groups, including the White House and Democratic Governors Association, are writing off a state where Republicans have scored big wins and recently overtook Democrat’s voter registration advantage for the first time in modern Florida political history. When President Barack Obama won Florida in 2008, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the state by nearly 700,000. They outnumbered Republicans by more than 550,000 in 2012. But Biden lost the state to Donald Trump and Republicans now outnumber Democrats by more than 175,000.
But Biden in recent weeks has taken a more confrontational approach with DeSantis. Biden and his administration recently hammered the governor for making his state the only one in the country to not pre-order pediatric Covid-19 vaccines. White House Covid response coordinator Ashish Jha even held a briefing with Florida reporters, where he called DeSantis’ move “unconscionable.”
Biden also issued an executive order banning programs that receive federal money from offering conversion therapy, a direct response to the DeSantis administration pushing to end state-funded gender-affirming care for transgender minors. DeSantis’ health department also crafted a rationale to justify banning Medicaid from paying for puberty blockers for transgender people.
Florida has also seen recent visits from first lady Jill Biden, who traveled last week to Palm Beach County to discuss cancer research and shared a stage with DeSantis during a memorial for victims of the Surfside condo tragedy. On Tuesday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge made several stops in Florida to talk about affordable housing, an issue that is in line with Florida Democrat’s 2022 messaging. And Department of Health and Humans Services Assistant Secretary Rachel Levine on Tuesday met with parents and kids under 5 years old about the Covid-19 vaccine.
Florida’s Department of Health on the same day criticized Levine, who said: “Opponents of LGBTQ equality have targeted trans and queer youth to score political points.” Levine, a four-star admiral, is the first openly transgender person to hold an office requiring Senate confirmation.
“The administration has been very, very present in the state,” Mayra Macias, chief strategy officer for Biden-affiliated group Building Back Together, said in an interview. “Be it the first lady in Palm Beach or Cabinet secretaries in other places, so I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to say the administration has written off Florida. You are seeing visibility at the highest levels.”
John Morgan, an Orlando attorney and major Democratic donor, said in a text message that there is one simple reason the White House will continue to focus on Florida: “More electoral votes,” he said. “It’s not off the radar.”
Morgan points to the large number of Democratic donors, including him, who reside in the state as another reason Democrats nationally can’t totally turn their back on the state. The DNC, for instance, just came knocking on his door, as it has in the past.
“Still lots of money,” Morgan said. “I was just asked to do an event with POTUS at my house for the DNC.”
Democratic congressional candidate Jared Moskowitz, whose campaign on Tuesday was endorsed by Hillary Clinton, said the state can help fuel important Democratic wins across the country, even if the party struggles within its borders.
“Even if you can’t win Florida, there is a lot of money to raise here that can be used in critical races across the country,” he said. “Republicans have out-registered Democrats here, so statistically you can make the observation that it’s moving to the right, but let’s not pretend Barack Obama winning the state is ancient history. It’s the third-largest state in the country, and there are a lot of active Democrats here.”
Moskowitz, a former state lawmaker who also served in DeSantis’ administration, said the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade could give Democrats a boost of political energy — maybe flipping the narrative that Republicans will dominate November’s midterm elections.
“It definitely should make Democrats understand how much is on the line if Republicans come back into power,” he said.
Macias said DeSantis’ penchant for picking culture war fights over things like pandemic vaccines, transgender kids or education will keep Florida on the radar of both the White House and the nation.
“Unfortunately, Governor DeSantis keeps signing into law very regressive policies that will keep Florida in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons,” she said. “Now, with Roe being overturned, we are thinking about states with abortion bans, and even when I was in Florida, bills like that kept coming up in the Legislature.”
Still, others see Florida’s role nationally for Democrats as the battlefield to try and stop DeSantis’ ascent rather than a state that remains a key cog in the party’s broader strategy. In 2020, for instance, Biden became the first candidate to win the White House without winning Florida since Bill Clinton in 1992, a feat some believe can be repeated.
“On the political spending and campaign stuff, I don’t think the play has changed at all in recent weeks, even as the president has talked about DeSantis,” said a former administration official familiar with the White House’s thinking who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “Florida has trended further to the right, and there is not a world right now where Democratic organizations intend to spend a ton of money there.”
The Democratic Governors Association has already signaled it will not focus on Florida to the degree it has in past years. But that didn’t start with the 2022 midterms. In 2020, Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon steered additional resources to Arizona, a state Biden won, over Florida, even as some were lobbying to boost spending in the state.
“It was not like she hated Florida,” the former administration official said of O’Malley Dillon, whose ties to Florida extend back to when she helped manage the failed 2006 gubernatorial run of Jim Davis. “She just did not believe there was real opportunity there. It’s why she invested in places like Arizona, not Florida like many wanted. She was right.”
“I don’t think you will see a lot of things change moving into reelection mode on that front,” the person added.
O’Malley Dillon could not be reached for comment.
There remains skepticism that Florida’s gubernatorial candidates, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who as a Republican in 2006 beat the O’Malley Dillon-led Davis campaign, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, can beat DeSantis. The Florida governor has raised more than $100 million and is seen as an overwhelming favorite to win reelection as he builds national momentum. Both Fried and Crist told POLITICO last week that they would welcome Biden campaigning with them in the general election, even as some Democrats across the country dodge that question amid the president’s low approval ratings.
Hopes, however, remain high for Rep. Val Demings’ bid for the Senate against Sen. Marco Rubio. Demings (D-Fla.), who is Black, is the former chief of the Orlando Police Department and was on the shortlist to serve as Biden’s VP. She’s a candidate Democrats hope can overcome what have been effective Republican attempts to brand Democrats as anti-law enforcement, which has been a key messaging point for Rubio in the early stage of the campaign.
The Florida Democratic Party, regardless of specific race, also continues to be the focus of persistent skepticism.
“I honestly at this point could not tell you who the leading Democrat is there,” said the former Biden administration official. “That’s the challenge for the DNC and reelection folks at this point. I don’t know if you see them laying some massive groundwork there. And to the extent Florida will be needed [in 2024], they won’t be depending on the state people. They can’t.”
Others see the state Democratic Party — whose chair, Manny Diaz, did not return a request seeking comment — as taking too much heat for the party’s extended dry spell.
“I think Manny Diaz is a very capable Democratic leader. From my experience, state parties are limited overall in what they can do,” Korge said.
“I am not naive to the fact that we are the underdog, but I kind of like being the underdog.”