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Ron DeSantis Is Eyeing the White House. Florida Democrats Are Eyeing Him.

He seems to be the heavy favorite for reelection at the moment. But remember—he only won by 30,000 votes last time. And he’s under 50 percent. Stranger things have happened.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

If any candidate in the 2022 Florida gubernatorial election wants this year’s race to be a localized affair without much national scrutiny, he or she will be sorely disappointed. The Florida governor’s race is shaping up to be one of the most nationalized races of the midterm elections, with enormous implications for both parties.

That fact was on display last week when former President Donald Trump was proxy-feuding with incumbent GOP Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about how seriously to take Covid-19. But the elements of a highly contentious and highly scrutinized election go beyond that. DeSantis’s massive $70 million war chest, his profile as an ultracompetitive would-be presidential candidate (especially if Trump doesn’t run for president again, but perhaps even against Trump), and a multicandidate Democratic primary of candidates who look strong on paper will attract outsize attention, even for Florida—a state that’s used to massive attention.

And though a Democratic win is judged a long shot at the moment, if it were to happen, that Democrat is an instant huge figure on the national stage. He or she will have defeated a rabid anti-vaxxer whom Democrats love to hate—and will be the first Democratic governor the Sunshine State has had in more than 20 years.

“This is a national election whether anyone wants it to be or not. Ron DeSantis is one of the top two Republican nominees for president of the United States in 2024, the other one being Donald Trump,” Sean Shaw, a Florida Democratic National Committeeman, said Monday. Shaw is backing Congressman Charlie Crist in the gubernatorial primary. “It’s Trump or DeSantis, and only one of those people is on the ballot prior to 2024, and that’s Ron DeSantis. Meaning, if you wanted to do something to stop him, you would have to do it in Florida.”

DeSantis’s approval rating is just barely underwater at 48 percent, while the exact same number disapprove, according to a Morning Consult Intelligence poll from late last year. But recent polling still shows him leading any of the possible Democratic nominees in a head-to-head matchup. Yet those evenly split approval numbers, and the fact that DeSantis was elected governor in 2018 by a mere 30,000-vote margin, is just enough to offer Democrats the idea that they could possibly, maybe, conceivably, knock off DeSantis. It allows Democrats to let themselves hope.

“Is DeSantis beatable? I think it’s too early to tell,” one keyed-in Florida Democratic donor told me. The donor went on to point out that the Democratic primary is August 23, just a few months from the general election, which means Floridians will be treated to months of the leading Democrats bashing each other. “The problem we have is our primary is so late. But in this case, it might actually be a good thing.”

The prevailing wisdom among the Democratic candidates, aides, donors, and activists I interviewed for this story is something that is usually sacrilege in the gubernatorial election arena: make this race about the country, not about specific Florida issues.

In part that’s because of persistent worries about fundraising. While DeSantis’s war chest is bigger than those some presidential candidates or national committees have had to work with, the Democratic fundraising numbers have been way more modest. Crist ended 2021 with the most money in the Democratic primary field, $3.8 million. In a small state, that might be a respectable haul, even in a multicandidate primary. But this is a large state with its uber-pricey media markets.

Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist and former communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, said that closing the fundraising gap alone is enough reason for Democrats to make this election about more than Florida. Doing so is usually a risky move as it makes a candidate who is running for the most powerful statewide office seem focused on something else. Even taking a big chunk of money from out of state can make a gubernatorial candidate seem like a carpetbagger. But here, Leopold argued, it’s worth it.

“I would focus on local issues, but there’s no problem with talking to national press. The problem is when you’re seen as putting national ambitions above state ambitions,” Leopold said. “But I would absolutely tell the candidates as much as they can because with a late primary, part of the equation to winning is using anger as a spigot to flow post-September.”

“I don’t see how any of these guys raise enough money to compete with, let alone [beat, DeSantis],” fretted Florida Democratic pollster Jim Kitchens. “Plus, you look at our registration. [It] is going more Republican than Democrat. So it’s kind of this feeling that ‘OK, we’ll get in there, we’ll run, it’ll go great, and we’ll lose by five points one more time.’”

As of now, the primary has three serious candidates. The best known is Crist, the former Republican governor and current Democratic House member, who famously fell out with the GOP after he hugged Barack Obama in a joint appearance in 2009; former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Miami native and former marijuana lobbyist; and state Senator Annette Taddeo, a businesswoman who was born in Colombia and is planning an all-67-county tour of Florida in part to rally untapped voters to her campaign. In separate interviews, both Fried and Taddeo made the same critique of DeSantis: that he wasn’t really running for another full term to be governor of Florida, he was just checking a box ahead of running for president.

“I think DeSantis has taken care of nationalizing this race. He’s already very clearly trying to attract his primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and has left us Floridians behind in the process,” Taddeo said.

“I’ve been hearing of people who can’t afford their homes, property insurance is increasing, people can’t afford their rent, and just the general cost of living,” Fried said in a separate interview. “And instead, he’s throwing this red meat out there not for Floridians but for the national conversation.”

So Democrats want to call attention to how DeSantis has approached Covid-19, how he has handled schools during the pandemic, and how he’s floated setting up a new voter-fraud police agency. They want to make DeSantis talk about Trump and whether he’s interested in running for president. And they want their support to come not just from inside the state but outside it, as well.

“I think this is an easy question for Democrats. Democrats want to win,” Fried explained to me. “We want to win and not only because of the egregious activities of this governor and control of the Republican Party for 25 straight years,” he said. “They want to win. They want a better way of life. They want to calm the rhetoric and the divisiveness and the culture wars created under this governorship.”

For a Democrat to win in Florida, that candidate will have to improve on how Democrat Andrew Gillum did in 2018 when he faced DeSantis, or Biden did in 2020 against Trump. In both races, the Democratic nominee won almost the exact same number and set of counties. Gillum actually won St. Lucie County, which Biden lost. But turnout was, unsurprisingly, higher in the 2020 presidential election, and Trump won by a wider margin (about 51 percent to Biden’s near 48 percent) than DeSantis did against Gillum (49.6 percent to 49.2 percent). A Democratic nominee would have to do more of what both Gillum and Biden did right: win the same set of counties and more, and also increase turnout. That’s a tall order in a year when Republican enthusiasm seems to be higher than Democratic energy.

A victorious Democratic candidate will also want to do better than Gillum did among usually reliable constituencies. Biden actually did better among Black Florida voters than Gillum (who would’ve been Florida’s first Black governor) did. Both candidates would have to win a larger share of Latino voters and steal away some of the adult white male support that carried both Trump and DeSantis to victory in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Realistically, though, Republican enthusiasm and turnout would have to be weaker than it’s been in recent years for a Florida Democrat to win. No Democrat I talked to argued that their party has the advantage this year (especially since it is shaping up to be a wave election for Republicans). But if a Democrat beats DeSantis, that victor would immediately be hailed as a giant-slayer. Such a winning candidate might also be doing Trump a favor by ousting the Republican who is increasingly emerging as the biggest threat to the former president in the next Republican primary. Either way, a Democratic governor would also ensure the state didn’t see draconian changes to its voting laws ahead of the next presidential election. The ripple effect of that could be huge.