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June 30, 2022

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Florida Democrats struggle to find spotlight in race against DeSantis

2 Photos
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried is introduced during the Governor???s Luncheon on the opening day of the Florida State Fair in Tampa in February. Her campaign is quick to note that when Fried won her 2018 race, she became the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Florida since 2012.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried is introduced during the Governor???s Luncheon on the opening day of the Florida State Fair in Tampa in February. Her campaign is quick to note that when Fried won her 2018 race, she became the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Florida since 2012. (Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The three leading Democratic candidates in the Florida governor’s race— U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and state Sen. Annette Taddeo — have a Ron DeSantis problem.

The incumbent Republican governor has massively out-fundraised his Democratic opponents, and — despite constant negative messaging from Democrats — approval polling shows the governor is popular with voters.

Some of the Democratic candidates’ soundbites that have garnered attention have come at a cost: Fried at one point compared DeSantis to Adolf Hitler and Crist got pushback after saying DeSantis was trying to gin up support from the “toothless crowd.”

With roughly 100 days until the Aug. 23 primary, the Democratic candidates still face significant hurdles including:

  • Name identification. Fried and Taddeo, both hoping to become the state’s first female governor, have work to do when it comes to simply getting voters to know their names. Fried’s internal polling shows 60% of voters know who she is. By the same polling, Crist is recognized by about 75% of the electorate. Taddeo sits at just about 15%, according to her campaign.
  • Fundraising. Since last May, a DeSantis-associated political committee has outraised the Democrats’ committees by a combined margin of about nine-to-one. The committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, reported it raised about $8.2 million in April alone — about as much as the Democratic committees’ combined total haul for the year.
  • Drowning out DeSantis. The Democrats are going up against a politician with one of the loudest megaphones in the country — amplified by Fox News and conservative supporters — who routinely controls the narrative with brash proclamations or policy stances.

The next 100 or so days will decide the winner of the primary. But even then, the Democrats’ challenges have only begun.

Are voters getting to know the candidates?

DeSantis, a sitting governor with rumored presidential aspirations, has become a household name not only in Florida but across the country. He regularly commands the spotlight, using his office to hold news conferences that feel like political rallies.

For Crist, a three-decade-plus career in Florida politics means voters also know his name — though a decade has passed and thousands more have moved to Florida since he was last governor. He’s also scored a number of endorsements, including from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

But his long record, beginning as a Republican, then running as an independent and then running for governor as a Democrat in 2014, has been a point of attack from his primary opponents.

In tweets and other messaging, the Fried campaign has attempted to portray Crist as a political also-ran. In comparison, her campaign is quick to note, Fried won her 2018 race by 6,753 votes, becoming the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Florida since 2012. (A Democrat has yet to live in the governor’s mansion in the 21st century.)

“Unfortunately, the state of Florida has spoken three times that he’s not the right fit,” said Matthew Van Name, a senior adviser to the Fried campaign — who also ran Crist’s 2016 campaign for U.S. Congress. “I don’t understand why he needs to hear this a fourth time.”

Fried’s camp has also dragged out Crist’s inconsistent history on abortion and cannabis policy, among other issues.

Crist has largely ignored the criticisms lobbed at him and said he’s focused on the general election.

“Our opponent is Ron DeSantis and that’s what our campaign is based on and focused on,” said Austin Durrer, Crist’s campaign manager.

Meanwhile, Taddeo, a Colombian-born state senator who flipped a red district in 2017, has focused her campaign on her personal story. Her father was kidnapped by a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization in her home country when she was 17, making Taddeo all but impervious to attacks about potential socialist sympathies.

But she has yet to see her message reach many voters.

“When voters get to know Annette, she shoots up in the polls across all constituency groups,” campaign manager Nick Merlino said.

All of the Democratic candidates have used DeSantis as a punching bag in public messaging in the hopes of getting their names out there. Fried’s tactics have been perhaps the most extreme: She’s likened DeSantis to various parts of the human anatomy on her Twitter account. In a podcast interview, she compared the governor to Hitler — a comment for which she was roundly criticized.

Crist caught flak, including from Fried, for his comment about DeSantis’ “toothless” supporters. His campaign later said he was saying some of DeSantis’ supporters lacked courage. He had been accused of evoking a stereotype about poor, white Floridians

Democrats are at a huge dollar disadvantage

The Democratic candidates are fighting to downplay not only their funding disparity with DeSantis but concerns about the ability of Democrats to win statewide.

Out-of-state liberal donors, disappointed by the state’s recent performance, have shifted money away from the state. With President Joe Biden’s approval rating lagging and registered Republicans outpacing registered Democrats for the first time in state history, the pessimism about Florida’s progressive future has only deepened.

But Crist has dismissed the gap between his fundraising — about $9 million through the end of April — with DeSantis’, who had raised more than $70 million with his political committee alone since last May. Crist says his stance on the issues matters more than fundraising.

Fried’s team contends her fundraising is getting stronger every month after a slow start. She’s reeled in a few big-name donors, such as former Republican South Florida power player Mike Fernandez, who has donated $225,000 to her political committee. She’s raised about $4.5 million.

Taddeo, meanwhile, has raised about $1.2 million between her committee and her campaign account.

Affordability becomes a focal point

While each has been forced to field questions about their campaign’s viability, all candidates in the Democratic primary have emphasized the same message — that DeSantis’ focus on cultural, red-meat issues has left behind the average Floridian.

They also hope some of the social stances DeSantis has taken, such as on abortion, will hurt him with a general electorate.

Crist’s proposals include expanding down payment assistance programs for veterans, young families and first-time homebuyers, and reforming the Florida Public Service Commission.

Taddeo, like Fried, has said she would declare a housing state of emergency to help control rent increases.

Fried’s plan for affordable housing includes plans to double the homestead exemption and target the landlords who she says are unfairly gouging tenants.

At campaign stops, Fried has criticized former governors — including Crist — for reallocating billions over the years in money meant to be set aside for affordable housing to other budget priorities.

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