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  • The San Juan Daily Star

‘We don’t want DeSantis to just walk into the White House’

An early voting center in Hollywood, Fla., Aug. 14, 2022. Abortion is driving the debate in Republican primaries for governor around the country, but Florida is one of the few states where differences over the issue have figured prominently in a Democratic primary for governor.

By Patricia Mazzei

On the first day of early voting in Broward County, Florida’s Democratic mecca, Jared Brown, a 41-year-old lawyer who until recently had never attended a Democratic Party meeting, drove to the polls in suburban Hollywood, slipped on a party T-shirt and grabbed a clipboard to go knock on voters’ doors.

He was motivated by anger.

Anger at Republicans in general — for appointing conservative judges, redirecting money from public schools and governing in a way that struck him as “authoritarian” — and anger at one Republican in particular: Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose polarizing persona has come to suck up all of the state’s political oxygen.

“It’s too offensive,” Brown said of the culture wars stoked by the governor and state lawmakers. “If you don’t fight them now,” he added, “it’s just not going to get any better.”

Going into today’s primary election, Florida Democrats like Brown are angry, especially at the ascendant DeSantis and the way he seems to them to act like someone who already has his eye on the White House. But it is not clear that in the choices they have to challenge him — Rep. Charlie Crist, who served as governor from 2007 to 2011, and Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner — they have someone who can beat him.

“DeSantis is running for president,” said Ann Ralston, 69, as she prepared for a long, sweaty day volunteering for no fewer than seven down-ballot Democratic candidates, whose logos she had pinned on her clothes, turning herself into a human billboard. “It’s a foregone conclusion,” she said.

Fried and Crist have each cast themselves as the more viable alternative and the truer Democrat, but each is defined as much by their perceived limitations as their strengths: Crist for already losing two statewide races since being elected governor, and Fried for her short time in public life.

To win, Democrats are fighting history as well as themselves. After four election cycles of close losses, the national donors whom they need to help finance expensive statewide campaigns appear unengaged this time. So do some voters.

“It’s an emotional narrative about Florida,” said Andrea Cristina Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, a racial justice organization. “‘Florida has broken my heart too many times.’”

Money usually flows into the state after the primary. But this year, she worries that Florida is not even on some donors’ radar.

“The right wing says every chance they can that ‘Florida is red, Florida is red,’ and it seems that Democrats are buying into that,” she said, noting that people who live in the state know it feels more closely divided than it looks.

“We don’t want DeSantis to just walk into the White House,” she added. “We’re trying to do what needs to be done with Scotch tape and paper clips.”

Whether Democrats nominate the more disciplined happy warrior Crist or the more unpredictable, feisty Fried might matter less than the state party’s long-standing problems. The failings have been clear for years — a thin candidate bench, weak party infrastructure, undisciplined messaging, mounting losses with Latinos — but leaders have struggled with how to address them. Last year, the number of active voters registered as Republicans surpassed Democrats for the first time in history, and the GOP edge has continued to grow.

In 2018, DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum, who would have become Florida’s first Black governor, by about 32,000 votes — less than half a percentage point — making the state a rare bright spot for Republicans. Some Democrats concluded that they would have won with a more moderate candidate, a hypothesis that Crist would now test. Others insisted that they only came as close as they did because of the excitement surrounding Gillum. Fried would be Florida’s first female governor.

For now, Democrats’ most buzzy statewide candidate is Val Demings, an Orlando congresswoman challenging Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican. Demings and Rubio have already attacked each other in ads, and recent Democratic polls have shown the race to be close, although Rubio is considered the favorite.

DeSantis, whose contrarian coronavirus policies drew scorn from public health experts but propelled him to national political stardom, seemed unbeatable a year ago, with a job approval rating near 60%. He amassed more than $130 million in campaign cash, an astonishing amount more than 10 times as great as either of his potential rivals.

But living in Florida has become less and less affordable. And a hard-right legislative agenda of stoking cultural issues has restricted abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, banned instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in some elementary school grades and revoked a special tax arrangement for Disney after the company had a political spat with the governor.

Such strident policies, coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court decision that eliminated federal abortion rights, have resonated with enough Floridians that Democrats believe there is a narrow path to beat DeSantis, whose job approval has dropped to about 50%.

Enter Fried, 44, the only Democrat elected to statewide office since 2018, and Crist, 66, who was elected governor in 2006 as a Republican and has since lost a Senate race as an independent (to Rubio in 2010) and a governor’s race as a Democrat (to Rick Scott in 2014). Fried said the 2014 loss makes Crist vulnerable to being defeated again using the same GOP playbook. He has represented the St. Petersburg area in Congress since 2017.

Fried said she would get under DeSantis’ skin as his opponent. And she rejected the notion that Crist would succeed against DeSantis much the way President Joe Biden succeeded nationally against former President Donald Trump.

“It’s not a winning equation here,” she said of that idea, emphasizing that Biden had lost in Florida. “Ron’s harder to beat. Trump is all talk. Ron has the policies in place.”

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