Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Florida Democrats have uphill 2022 fight, do they have a path to victory? (Palm Beach Post)

Florida Democrats are listening to the people, while Messrs. DeSANTIS and RUBIO are exploiting Kulturkampf. 

From Palm Beach Post:

Florida Democrats have uphill 2022 fight, do they have a path to victory?

Chris Persaud
Palm Beach Post
Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist participates in a roundtable discussion at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in West Palm Beach, Thursday, June 10, 2021.

Democrats have been out of power in Florida for more than 20 years. And if they want to reverse the frustration this November, they will need to win over voterslike Sandra Link.

The 72-year-old retired former advertising agency owner in Jupiter was once a “diehard Republican.” Going back to the 1970s, she said, Link reliably voted for the party’s presidential candidates. In the evenings, Link said she “faithfully” watched Fox News. 

But when Donald Trump became the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2016, she couldn’t cast her ballot for him, she said, feeling repulsed. “I knew then the kind of lying turncoat Trump was,” Link said.

Previously:Republican-leaning voters in Palm Beach County turned against Trump; Florida GOP unfazed

Interactive map:Did your neighborhood flip in 2020 election? These Palm Beach County precincts did

After Jan. 6:Why are thousands of Florida Republicans leaving the party?

Instead, Link said she reluctantly voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton that year. In 2020, Link said she voted for Democrat Joe Biden.

Eventually, she officially left the GOP and changed her voter registration to independent, a sort of wild card or free agent in the parlance of politics.

That makes Link a coveted voter – one of more 3.8 million Florida voters registered as as an NPA, or no party affiliation. Many of them, like Link, formerly identified with one of the major parties until they were turned off for one reason or another.

This year’s Democratic candidates for U.S. senator, governor and the three other state Cabinet posts – attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner – need to win independents more than ever. 

For the first time ever, Republican active voters outnumber Democrats in Florida, by almost 70,000 as of the end of January.

In the 2018 midterm election, by contrast, Democrats counted a comfortable 257,175 registration lead over Republicans, but they still lost the governor’s mansion and the U.S. Senate seat.

Since then, Democrats' rank-and-file woes have continued. About 100,000 voters registered as Republicans in January 2021 – when Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol to overturn the 2020 presidential election – have left the party. But even more Democrats – 123,000 of them – have left their party since then. 

As voter rolls stand, Florida has 5.13 million registered Republicans and 5.04 million registered Democrats, each party accounting for little more than 35% of the electorate. That makes the 26.9% of NPA voters a potentially decisive swing bloc in a statewide electorate of 14.28 million voters

Still, at the outset of 2022, the Democrats' statewide prospects look dim.

Even after passing controversial laws and rules, and supporting unpopular legislation on issues ranging from COVID-19 to abortion and LGBTQ rights, polls show Gov. Ron DeSantis leading his would-be Democratic rivals by big margins.

DeSantis leads each of the three Democratic rivals by margins ranging from 8 points to 16 points, according to a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this year. And he counts more than $70 million in his campaign war chest. Two-term U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio leads the expected Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Val Demings, 49% to 42%.

And a poll conducted Feb. 24 by the University of North Florida's Public Opinion Research Lab shows DeSantis leading two would-be Democratic rivals by big margins – 55% to 34% against Congressman Charlie Crist, and 55% to 32% against Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Golf great Jack Nicklaus, back right, applauds as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, back left, declares Barbara Nicklaus Day before awarding her, second from back right, the Governor's Medal Of Freedom for her contributions and commitment to pediatric health care in the state at the Honda Classic golf tournament Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP)

Republicans also say they're more excited than Democrats to vote.

Michael Binder, the lab's faculty director and a professor of political science, said they found that 65% of registered Republicans are "more enthused than last election" compared to 49% of Democrats. “This suggests Republicans might be trending toward a larger turnout advantage,” he said in a statement. 

Another potentially bad omen: Last month, Democrats lost a seat they formerly held in the partisan Jacksonville city council when the Republican candidate won a special election.

But some high-profile Florida GOP policies also highly unpopular

But even as Florida has trended crimson, the red-meat GOP politics of the past generation have led to narrower victories for the party's gubernatorial candidates.

In 2002, Jeb Bush became the first Florida Republican governor to win re-election with a hefty 655,418-vote margin of victory at a time when Democrats had a 345,000 voter advantage. Four years later, Charlie Crist easily succeeded him, but with half the gap – 341,556 votes – that Bush enjoyed.

Rick Scott subsequently won his gubernatorial elections by just 10% of the margin Bush scored – 61,550 votes in 2010 and 64,145 votes in 2014. DeSantis won in 2018 by 5%, 32,463 votes, of Bush's gap.

Polls suggest that while enthusiastic Republicans are confident of victory this year, some of their favorite policies draw opposition broad from Floridians.

The UNF voter survey that found wide margins for DeSantis also showed significant opposition to three legislative measures the governor and the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature backed this year:

  • Some 55% opposed banning abortions in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Another controversial legislative measure, the so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill to prohibit discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools, registered just 40% support.
  • And the push to change Florida's Constitution to require partisan school board elections drew only 32% approval.

DeSantis also supports bills that would punish teachers for discussing race, gender or sexuality. The so-called Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by opponents, would also force school officials to out students to their parents, even if kids wanted to confide with a trusted teacher about their sexuality. It would also allow parents to sue schools over these discussions.

“I was never really all that on board with the social-policy-type stuff where the Christian right and that voter bloc … feels very strongly about abortion, about gays,” self-described “lifelong conservative Christian” David Gritter of Jupiter said.

“My take on the issue is, A, why does it bother you so much? And B, it’s not your business. It doesn't affect you. You have no right to tell people how to live their lives. And it’s pretty messed up you're trying to get the government to tell people how to live their lives.”

And, emboldened by the Supreme Court taking up a direct challenge from Mississippi to its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, Florida GOP lawmakers are pushing to ban most abortions statewide after 15 weeks, down from the current 24 weeks. With no exceptions for victims of rape or incest, it would be the biggest restrictions to abortion access since the Supreme Court ruled on its constitutionality.

When it comes to abortion access, Link, the former Republican in Jupiter, describes herself as “pro-choice.” “If that law changes, it’s going to go back to trailer parks in Toledo, Ohio, and trailer parks in Florida,” the Ohio native said. “I don't think men should speak on antiabortion.”

Link, like many old-school Republicans, those who believe in limited government, say they no longer felt comfortable within the GOP ranks.

“When I was a Republican, I was a very liberal Republican,” she said. “The basic reason I was always a Republican – beside that's because how I was raised – is because I don't believe in big government."

Jay Ailworth, a registered Republican in Palm Beach County, said he voted for DeSantis in 2018. And during the 2019 hurricane season, the Vietnam War veteran was pleased with the governor. But no longer.

"When he started dealing with the hurricane issues, I went, 'Ya know what? He’s not really all that bad,' " Ailworth said. "But when COVID hit, he fell straight in line with Trump."

An unprecedented number of voters such as Ailworth cast their ballots by mail in 2020 amid the pandemic of the airborne coronavirus. After Florida counted virtually all its ballots the night of the presidential election, while other states still tabulated. 

"We're now being looked at as the state that did it right and that other states should emulate," DeSantis said at the time.

But after months of complaints from Trump mail-in votes, which Biden handily won, DeSantis passed laws increasing the difficulty of that method of voting.

"He is taking a voting system that has worked without a hitch and forcing me to sign up after each election," Ailworth said. Anyone voting by mail must now contact their county's elections office to manually register to receive the so-called absentee ballots, rather than checking a box on the ballot envelope.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates target other issues, too 

The lone Florida Democrat holding statewide elected office, Fried, is challenging DeSantis. She believes she can win disaffected Republican-leaning voters by appealing to them on values such as “government overreach” and taxes, she said. 

“Under Trump and DeSantis, we have seen the Republican Party basically create an authoritarian regime,” Fried said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post. “Republicans have typically been for less government, less taxes. This Republican Party is just the opposite.” 

Nikki Fried talks about medical marijuana, with Black entrepreneurs Jonathan and Dr. Antoinette Smith in back, after as touring their medical marijuana doctor’s office and retail store, Miracle Leaf of Southern Boulevard, in West Palm Beach Wednesday, February 23, 2022. The couple have one of the few minority-owned enterprises in the cannabis industry.

Local municipal officials across the state are balking at DeSantis' and GOP lawmakers' in Tallahassee removing their powers, she said. Republican mayors, too, dislike the direction of the state party, although she didn’t name any on the record.

Mayors criticized DeSantis last year as COVID-19 infections spiked in spring break hotspots as revelers descended upon the state and helped spread the disease in places such as Daytona Beach and Miami Beach. The governor had signed laws and executive decrees restricting or nullifying local laws meant to slow the virus’ spread, such as mask requirements and social distancing rules.

Fried also criticized DeSantis in April for signing a bill into law that adds a 6% online sales tax when buying from out-of-state retailers. The revenue raised is meant first to help replenish the state’s unemployment insurance fund, then help make up for revenue lost by a tax cut DeSantis passed for businesses that rent out commercial space.

The leading Democratic gubernatorial contender, Crist, knows firsthand about leaving the GOP. He was elected governor in 2006 as a member of the party, then left it in 2010 because it had become too extreme, he said, before unsuccessfully running for Senate that year as an independent. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014 as a Democrat. He won a congressional race in 2016 for a St. Petersburg district and has served since.

To win those Republicans who rebuke Trump, Crist said, tell them, “You don’t have to be part of the Trump crowd anymore, like our governor, who is Trump Jr. You can have a moderate, reasonable Florida Democrat be a good governor for you.”

When he campaigned in 2014, Crist said, “I went to Pensacola. I went to traditionally red (Republican) counties … to talk to people. To look them in the eye.”

As for policies and ideas that disaffected Republicans would like, he said, “being fiscally responsible is one of them. Ensuring that we are not going to have an income tax in Florida means a lot to them.”

Another Democratic gubernatorial contender, state Sen. Annette Taddeo, also mentioned the GOP-led efforts to cut freedoms of businesses and schools as a way to win "middle-of-the-road" voters.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, explains SB 1949 to the Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism on March 15, 2021.

Taddeo, along with Fried and Crist, denounced DeSantis in November for passing laws that allow the state to fine businesses and government agencies that ask visitors for proof of vaccination against COVID-19. These laws also allow employees who were fired for refusing to take the free, safe and effective shots to collect taxpayer-funded unemployment insurance benefits.

DeSantis also is expected to sign the so-called "Stop WOKE Act," which critics fear will punish schools and businesses from discussing race and racial discrimination. 

"If we're gonna be the freest state in the country," Taddeo said, referencing a DeSantis slogan, "why are you going to impose on businesses what they can and can't do?"

Taddeo once served as chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce.

"I thought the Republican Party was the anti-lawsuit party. But all these laws passed are sue, sue, sue. It’s insane," she said. "I think (independent voters) are much more up for grabs because of the craziness and the extremism."

One Democratic former elected state official said candidates from her party could win over Republican-leaning voters by pushing against state laws DeSantis has supported that take power from local governments and strip rights from business owners.

“I know plenty of Republican city council members and school board members and county commission members all over the state who are totally frustrated by this,” Democratic former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said. She ran for governor in 2010, losing to Republican Rick Scott by less than one percentage point.

Democrats could appeal to business-minded disaffected Republicans by advocating for their freedoms in the face of the current Florida GOP.

“If I'm a small business owner and … I decide I don't want people coming into my store to mask up and sometimes I want to, that should be my right,” Sink said. “The government should not be telling me I cannot establish rules to run my own business. I don't want to go to a hospital and think my nurse has not been vaccinated” against COVID-19.

Does this Florida county hold a blueprint for Democrats?

To retain voters like Link and Gritters, and attract more disillusioned Republicans, one Central Florida Democratic official suggests looking to her county. 

The majority of voters in Seminole County, population 472,000, north of Orlando, backed Biden in November, the first time since 1948 a Democrat won it.

Seminole County’s Democratic Party chairwoman, Lynn Moira Dictor, said the county shifted towards her party because of “socially responsible” and “fiscally moderate” Republican-leaning voters and former Republicans.

Telling those voters, "I want to make sure we are fiscally responsible" gets their attention, Dictor said, while emphasizing, "We’re not gonna have wasteful spending."

Dictor said her county party tries to avoid sounding too much like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont who does not affiliate as a Democrat but ran for president twice as one.

Republicans in the county outnumber Democrats by less than 2,000, a big drop from more than 13,000 in 2016.

Many college-educated white voters who used to lean Republican have become fed up with the GOP, in large part thanks to Trump, University of Central Florida political science Professor Aubrey Jewett said. “And that is – at least in Seminole County – a big part of the explanation for why we went Democratic for the first time in, like, 50 years.”

About half of county residents earn more than $67,000 annually, or $11,000 more than Florida’s household median income. And 40% of residents 25 and older have a college degree, compared to 30% statewide.

It’s a similar story in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, where voters backed Biden, the first time since 1976 a Democrat carried the county.

The GOP “may have alienated people who may have been (John) McCain-type Republicans or (Mitt) Romney-type Republicans,” Binder at the University of North Florida said. 

And when it comes to DeSantis, he said some anti-Trump Republican acquaintances liked the governor at first. 

“I think the COVID-denying aspect of him hurt him among those folks, the pro-science people,” Binder said. “They’re looking and they're saying, ‘Geez this guy’s dangerous.’ ”

Link, the former Republican, has the same view of the governor. “I’ve got a friend who calls him 'DeathSantis' and I agree with that,” she said. “He’s really Trumpy. I truly do not like DeSantis and would never vote for him.”

Palm Beach Post reporter Wendy Rhodes contributed to the reporting of this story.

Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post's data reporter. Email him at cpersaud@pbpost.com or on Twitter at @chrismpersaud.

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