Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Phil Ehr
Florida Democratic Senate candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has endorsed Navy veteran Phil Ehr for Congress. Wilfredo Lee/AP

Florida Democrats Are Pleading for National Investment for 2024. It Probably Won’t Work.

State Democrats are touting state and local wins to lure big donors back into the state. “The brand is tainted,” one Florida pollster told NOTUS.

Eager to signal a Democratic pulse to national investors, Florida state leaders are touting upset wins at the state and local level over the past year. But party insiders warn, Democrats’ problems in Florida are too entrenched to rely on momentum from those victories, and big donors are still writing the state off.

A January win in a state House special election, in a district that overlaps with parts of vulnerable House Democratic Rep. Darren Soto’s, as well as a Democratic victory in the Jacksonville mayoral race last spring a city Gov. Ron DeSantis won by nearly 12 points just six months prior — are giving Florida Democrats something to shout about. Nationally, however, the cash has run dry for a major Florida push.

“Nothing to my eyes as soon as suggested a substantial sea change or a new type of investment or reengagement of Florida,” Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi told NOTUS. “It’s premature to suggest that the Florida Democratic Party is back in any real way, shape or form until the Democratic Party starts winning any statewide elections in Florida.”

The “dirty secret” about national divestment from Florida, he says, traces back to Florida’s 2018 midterms when Republicans won both statewide races: DeSantis won the governor’s race, and Rick Scott flipped a Senate seat red, both by tiny margins, but starting the downhill domino effect for the Democrats in 2020 and 2022.

The result has been a chicken-and-egg situation in the state: Donors don’t seem to want to pour money into the state until there’s a clear sign that Democrats can win big races, and Democrats need money to win races.

“In 2020, the Biden campaign made a strategic decision that they could win the presidency without Florida, and they were right. But the direct consequence of that decision was a catastrophic cratering of turnout in Florida in 2022,” Beth Matuga, a consultant for the state House Democrats’ campaign committee, wrote in a blog post about state House Democrat Tom Keen’s recent special election victory, flipping the seat.

Matuga attributes the recent state House victory largely to the paid canvassing efforts done within the formal party structure. “It was a partisan contact program. Unlike nonprofit organizations, we can say things to voters like, ‘I’m a Democrat, and I want you to vote for this Democrat.’ This matters. It was managed in-house, not farmed out to third-party organizations who do not have the same accountability.”

But the Democratic organizers on the ground are facing the reality of making the most without significant national money swooping in to save the day.

“If I was in charge of the Biden campaign, and I was looking at the entire country and the states that you need to protect, and the flippable states, and then you look at the voter registration numbers of the state of Florida? I don’t know how much I would invest,” Pinellas County Democratic Chair Jennifer Griffith said. “I have to be practical.”

After losing all five statewide races in the 2022 general election, state Democrats are hoping 2024 will give them a chance to regain ground across the ballot — aiming to win a statewide race for the first time in six years, and break the Republican supermajority by flipping five more seats in the state Legislature. Democrats are facing a difficult Senate map and see Florida and Texas as the most fertile ground for a pickup.

“I don’t expect 2016 numbers of money coming in [this year], but in 2022, we literally had almost no money coming in, so anything is better than 2022 was as far as federal money,” Soto said.

Former Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, left, walks with Val Demings, D-Fla., center, at the kick off of the Giffords Florida bus tour
Democrat Val Demings was unable to win her Senate race against Sen. Marco Rubio in 2022. Lynne Sladky/AP

Nikki Fried, the last Democrat to win a statewide election in 2018 as Agriculture commissioner, took over as chair of the state party a year ago — which she described as in “disarray from lack of organization to lack of voter registration” after Florida’s miserable Democratic turnout in the 2022 midterms. (There were also widely reported financial problems within the state party.)

Fried told NOTUS she’s hoping the party’s investment on the state and local level can jolt some kind of national focus. Keen’s state House win was the “icing on the cake” in a string of local election wins for Democrats in the last year.

The Biden campaign included Florida on its expansion map, though it was reportedly met with “eye rolls” from big donors at a private event put on by the campaign. Ad-tracking company AdImpact predicted just $81 million in presidential spending in Florida, down from $350 million in 2020. (Though AdImpact noted Florida was one of three states where spending “could exceed our projections depending on the competitiveness of their Senate and presidential elections.”)

State House Democratic leader Fentrice Driskell, who led the party efforts in Keen’s recent win, said a Kamala Harris staffer ran up to her at a gala with a “we won!” after the Jacksonville mayor’s race win last spring. “The White House was watching that race, that’s not an overstatement. So, I think similarly, with Tom Keen’s race. We have national partners who are looking for signs of life and this is an important one,” Driskell told NOTUS. Driskell has ramped up state House Democratic fundraising in recent years, and her committee invested $1.2 million in Keen’s race.

The national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee also invested in Keen’s race: “When it comes to special elections, there are only so many that actually matter and that could cause a flip, and this is definitely one of those,” Abhi Rahman said. But, Florida is not one of the committee’s recently announced battleground states for November.

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Florida Democrats point to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee listing Florida and Texas on its expansion map, opening field offices and using targeted campaign ads against Sens. Scott and Ted Cruz last fall.

“We held the Senate [in 2022], so I can’t blame people for investing the dollars they needed to, in the ways we needed to, to hold onto it,” Osceola County Democratic Chair Steve Wells said. “But this year, because Florida and Texas are the two big ones, they’re just gonna be expensive either way, they’re both expensive states, I think you’re gonna see that investment.”

State Democrats also have another message to political donors that don’t see Florida as winnable: They think they have killer campaign messaging this cycle with abortion and property insurance.

“We hardly ever get, as Democrats, particularly in Florida, a pocketbook issue and a social issue together at the same time, and those two things together form a kryptonite of sorts for Republicans,” Matuga said.

But until national funders see the party as viable, the message might not make any difference. Amandi told NOTUS, “Jesus Christ or Jimmy Buffett could run statewide as a Democrat and they probably would fail because the brand is tainted in this state.”

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.