No million-dollar checks: Democratic governors may sit out Florida – POLITICO
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asks the crowd "How about Virginia," as he arrives at an event in West Palm Beach, Fla. on Wednesday. | Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
By MATT DIXON
11/04/2021 06:31 PM EDT
Updated 11/05/2021 09:20 AM EDT
TALLAHASSEE — The Democratic Governors Association has no plans to give significant financial help to Florida Democrats as they seek to unseat Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, a major setback that will make it harder for challengers to take on the popular Republican.
The DGA, which spent more than $15 million in Florida over the past two gubernatorial election cycles, is starting to deprioritize the state and is expected to have a much smaller footprint during the midterms, said two Florida Democratic consultants who have been in contact with the DGA.
It’s a move driven, in part, by the DGA’s need to use its limited resources to protect incumbent governors elsewhere, as well as the growing sense that Democrats can’t win statewide elections in Florida, these people said, speaking on condition of anonymity to characterize the private discussions.
The decision to withhold resources in Florida deals a blow to Democrats eager to knock off DeSantis, a nationally ascendant Republican with future White House aspirations. It also indicates that Florida is losing its position as the largest swing state, with some national groups deciding that, at least for now, it’s center-right terrain.
The perception that DeSantis is unbeatable has left national Democratic groups like the DGA to weigh whether they should spend resources in Florida, a hugely expensive state with 10 media markets, or use that cash to help incumbents in cheaper states.
“I do think, and I can’t stress this enough, the DGA is playing mostly defense this year, and that’s a monumental change,” said Jonathan Ducote, a veteran Democratic consultant who has worked with the group. “When I think about Florida statewide elections, the number one thing you have to ask yourself is do you have the money to communicate in a really expensive state?"
One of the people who has spoken with the DGA said that DeSantis’ near universal support from the GOP base and $50 million war chest — as well the organization’s focus on incumbents — means Florida is likely to see far less money than past election cycles. There was no dollar figure immediately available.
A second person working with the DGA, who confirmed that the organization is limiting its financial help to Florida Democrats, said he’d be amazed if the DGA invested heavily in the state.
“I spoke to them two weeks ago. We had a pretty candid conversation. DeSantis is looking strong politically and financially, and there are states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Arizona where they see potential pickups on top of incumbent protection,” the consultant, who also stressed that the election is still a year away, said this week in an interview. “They might do some money, but they are not going the way they have been in the past. There are not going to be multi-million-dollar checks.”
Sam Newton, DGA’s deputy communications director, told POLITICO that DeSantis is vulnerable and will face a tough election.
“Florida is a tried and true battleground state where he’ll have to answer for putting his own partisan politics first – even when it hurts Floridians,” Newton told POLITICO via a statement. “That includes opposing Medicaid expansion, costing lives by playing political games with COVID-19, and even slamming local counties and schools with fines just for implementing their own common sense mask and vaccine measures.”
The election is still a year away and the DGA could ramp up its support later in the cycle. Newton emphasized that the DGA is “committed to continue working with both in-state and national partners to build the general election infrastructure — including digital, media, messaging and political engagement — to be ready for whoever wins our nomination.”
A handful of vulnerable incumbent Democratic governors in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania will be on the ballot in 2022 and will likely take up national resources, while Florida’s national perception as hostile Democratic territory means it won’t receive the same amount of financial help.
“National donors and organizations are worried about protecting the Midwest. Fair enough,” said Ray Paultre, executive director of the Florida Alliance, a loosely aligned coalition of progressive donor groups. “What they are not realizing is that if Florida is not competitive, where do you think a good chunk of that Republican spending is going? Straight to the Midwest and Georgia.”
Democrats have not held the governor’s mansion in Florida in more than two decades, but have come close in recent years. In 2014, Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who is running for governor as a Democrat in 2022, lost to Republican Rick Scott by one point after Scott put $15 million of his own money in the race late. That year, DGA spent nearly $7 million backing Crist. In 2018, Democrat Andrew Gillum lost to DeSantis by just 40,000 votes after a recount. That cycle, DGA spent $7.6 million supporting Gillum.
Though those races were close, there has long been a sinking feeling among Florida Democrats that DeSantis is on the verge of being unstoppable. Besides his enormous fundraising success, his hands-off pandemic response has made him intensely popular with the Trump base a year after the former president won the state by three points — a landslide in Florida.
The first two Democrats to get in the race, Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, have lagged in fundraising and exciting Democrats. That gave Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo an opening to enter the race last month, making it a three-way primary likely to leave the winner with little cash in the bank headed into the general election.
“Let me tell you how the DGA works,” said a DGA staffer who spoke on a condition of anonymity so they could openly discuss how Florida is viewed this cycle. “First, it’s incumbent protection, and there is a bunch of that this year. Then they look at open seats, then they look at challenging incumbents, and DeSantis isn’t the easiest incumbent to challenge.”
“DGA does not look at things in a vacuum,” the staffer added. “We have a lot of races in 2022, and Florida requires, what, $6 to $10 million? That’s a lot.”
For the DGA, like other Democratic national donor groups and political organizations, it is starting to come down to a crisis of confidence in Florida after decades of losing elections.
“Given challenges we have in Florida, donors and other organizations can focus on places where the numbers are better and there is more opportunity,” said Ashley Walker, a longtime Democratic consultant. “Yes, it is different now. In Florida, we have a real challenge to restore confidence that we can actually win here.”
© 2021 POLITICO LLC