Florida Democrats gathered for their annual pep rally Saturday in Tampa at a time when the party faithful desperately is in need of a pep talk amid a steady stream of bad news.
The messages they heard from party leaders varied, but mostly boiled down a simple exhortation: Work hard, have faith and keep fighting because the issues are too important.
Defeated and demoralized after a series of big losses that have made Florida seem increasingly like a red state, Democrats are trying to pick themselves up and take on an incumbent governor with national star power who looks increasingly like a juggernaut.
They know it won’t be easy to unseat Ron DeSantis.
“DeSantis is pretty strong, he’s like a monolith to go against,” said Jay Alexander, a St. Petersburg Democrat who serves as an elected fire commissioner.
Trying to find a crack in the DeSantis monolith may be the Florida Democratic Party’s biggest preoccupation these days. The question of how to take on DeSantis came up in caucus meetings and in conversations in the corridors of the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Tampa, where grassroots activists and party leaders gathered for the annual Leadership Blue event.
Incoming Democratic state House leader Fentrice Driskell said Democrats shouldn’t overthink the problem.
“I think at times Democrats, especially in Florida, the odds and the head winds we face are so great we feel like the solutions have to be very complicated but they’re not,” Driskell said, adding that Democrats simply need to do more grassroots organizing.
Democrats first must pick a candidate to organize around in the governor’s race, though, and both primary contenders were on hand Saturday to make their case to the party faithful. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist set up booths across from each other, and worked the same rooms throughout the day.
They made appearances at a series of caucus gatherings, pitching themselves to the party’s diverse coalition, and were scheduled to deliver speeches during an evening gala that also will feature U.S. Senate candidate Val Demings and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Crist has raised more money than Fried, locked up more big endorsements and, while public polling is scare, is viewed as the frontrunner, but both had a strong contingent at Saturday’s event.
Both jabbed at DeSantis, with Crist telling the Hispanic Caucus that the governor is “an autocrat wanting to be a dictator” and Fried saying in an interview that DeSantis is more focused on positioning himself for a presidential run than “he is concerned about the actual people in our state.”
Fried also took aim at Crist’s past positions as a Republican, especially his anti-abortion comments, and her campaign highlighted a video of Crist being booed by protesters – who were targeting a conservative event across the street – when he tried to show solidarity with them.
“Voting blue is not enough, Democrats we call your bluff,” they chanted as Crist retreated to a waiting car.
Inside the convention, Demings supporters erupted in periodic chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho Marco Rubio’s got to go.” The race between Demings and Rubio is the other big contest on the ballot this year, but much of the party’s focus is on DeSantis and his policies.
There were “Say gay” signs on the walls of the conference area and attendees wore buttons with the slogan, referencing a bill DeSantis passed targeting how sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in schools.
The bill drew national attention. Conservatives rallied to DeSantis side, helping to increase his profile. Another sign on the hotel wall read “teach Black history,” an apparent reference to DeSantis also targeting how race is taught in schools.
DeSantis narrowly won in 2018 by the closest margin of any governor’s race in Florida history but has since built a national brand centered around these culture war issues and his “free state of Florida” COVID-19 policies. He now is getting constant buzz as a top presidential contender and has parlayed his fame into a massive fundraising haul, with $129 million in cash available for the last few months of the race.
As he has increased in prominence, the governor also has become a bigger target. Many Democrats are highly motivated to beat DeSantis, for whom they have near Trumpian levels of visceral dislike.
Cocoa Democrat Janis Gregory said DeSantis “scares me.”
“I find him to be an incredibly dangerous person,” she said.
The current political climate can be daunting for Democrats. Gregory said the national headwinds that Democrats face with issues such as inflation and President Joe Biden’s low approval rating are “very frustrating.”
“But that just makes me willing to spend more time,” she said.
Gregory volunteers for the Brevard County Democratic Party, which recently adopted the slogan “Democracy is worth fighting for.”
Despite the difficult odds for Florida Democrats this election season, “we will continue to fight because Democracy is worth fighting for and we believe our Democracy is at stake,” Gregory said.
Multiple speakers at a Black Caucus event warned activists that the only way to elevate Florida Democrats lowly status is to work harder.
“Nobody is coming to save us,” Driskell said, adding that Democrats need to “organize our way out of this.”
The party struggled to mount an effective ground game in 2020 during the height of COVID-19 and former President Donald Trump carried the state easily. There was a sense among those in attendance Saturday of the importance of door-to-door campaigning.
“We have allowed social media to make us lazy,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones. “Grassroots still works. Knocking on doors still works.”
Finding a compelling message that works for Democrats in the current political climate could be trickier.
Democrats are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Roe v. Wade ruling protecting abortion rights will galvanize voters.
The issue permeated Saturday’s event. Many Democrats see it as a game changer.
Women upset about abortion rights “are going to turn the tide in the country,” said Riverview Democrat Kate Kampfe.
Driskell said Democrats also need to focus on “kitchen table issues” after allowing DeSantis to control the narrative with culture war fights.
“Tell people about the bad things that happened, but then also pivot and talk about those kitchen table issues,” such as the high cost of housing and property insurance, Driskell said.
Republicans have been in charge of Florida for decades, she noted.
“Make the Republicans own this failure,” she said, adding: “We can play their game too.”
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at [email protected]
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