“This is the Democrats’ last chance to stop him and it’s going to cost a lot less to do it in Florida than it does in 50 states,” Crist said on CNN the morning after his win and while repeatedly hitting his website the country. “If you want to help (President) Joe Biden get a second term, we have to shut down Ron DeSantis in Florida.”
Perhaps Crist’s appeal for money was as creative as it was desperate. After exhausting most of the $14 million his campaign and political committee raised to defeat Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in the primary, Crist began the 11-week sprint to the general election almost from from zero. Meanwhile, DeSantis awaited Crist with $132 million in hand, a record sum for a governor’s race.
But Crist’s speech was also born out of a difficult reality facing Democrats in Florida. After more than 20 years of watching devastating and narrow defeats in the Sunshine State, many Democratic donors this cycle are taking a break from Florida so far. The dominant narrative heading into the fall is that Florida has become too red and DeSantis too powerful for donors to invest here.
It doesn’t help Florida’s case that 50-50 Senate control is in the balance of these midterms and that there are sitting Democratic governors in states like Wisconsin and Michigan that the party has prioritized the Florida Governor’s mansion to this day. Donors are also more motivated to help Democrat Stacey Abrams challenge Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in neighboring Georgia, a Florida-based Democratic fundraiser told CNN.
“Charlie is more likely to get a big check from the Tooth Fairy under his pillow than from domestic donors,” the fundraiser said. “I just don’t think they’re focused on the race for governor of Florida. I think they’re focused on winning seats in states where the Democrats already hold the governor’s mansion or it’s an open seat. .”
Democratic Party officials are quick to insist that they remain committed to Florida. Sam Newton, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, called Florida a “competitive battleground in 2022” and he noted the investments the organization has already made in the state party to help build infrastructure. needed to orchestrate a turnaround here.
“It’s the same strategy we’ve used to beat Republican incumbents in tough states like (Wisconsin) Scott Walker, (North Carolina) Pat McCrory and (Kentucky) Matt Bevin — and we look forward to working hand in hand. hand with the Crist campaign to aggressively continue to hold Ron DeSantis accountable,” Newton said.
Yet the DGA did not match the million dollars it deposited into the political committee for Andrew Gillum a day after he won the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida in 2018. From Gillum’s nomination to the day of the elections that year, the DGA paid Florida $7.5 million. . Few expect this type of investment in 2022, although Newton did not rule it out.
“We are constantly evaluating the best ways to ensure we are deploying resources when they have the greatest impact,” he said.
Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist now with the Lincoln Project, said Democrats would regret it in 2024 if they didn’t see the Florida governor race as an opportunity to slow DeSantis’ rise. DeSantis is the only Republican who polls show would be competitive in a GOP primary against former President Donald Trump. And while Democrats know how to beat Trump, Wilson said, DeSantis could present a tougher new challenge.
“They’re absolutely going to be like, ‘What were we doing?'” Wilson said. “‘Why didn’t we bloody it? Why didn’t we have it nuclear? Why didn’t we make it spend $50 million?’ They don’t know how to fight.”
That can be a tough sell for donors who don’t typically think that far ahead, the Florida fundraiser said.
“I think voters care more about wallet issues and whether they can decide what to do with their own bodies or whether they can afford gas than if Ron DeSantis runs for president in 2024.” , they said.
Major donors did not show up this year
Other major donors in 2018 have yet to say whether they are financially committed to Florida this cycle. National unions that have contributed seven-figure sums to Gillum’s effort declined to share their plans for the fall.
“While we’re not commenting on dollars, you better believe we’re going to support candidates who put workers first as opposed to political extremists who have opposed the president’s agenda to cut prescription drug prices and are committed to suppressing the rights and freedoms of people,” said Nick Voutsinos, spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME donated $1.5 million to Gillum’s efforts.
The American Federation of Teachers donated $500,000 to Crist’s political committee earlier this month, half of what the union gave Gillum in his run. A spokesperson for the organization did not say if it would deploy another half million dollars here.
West Palm Beach businessman Daniel Abraham, a frequent Democratic donor who donated $1 million to Gillum’s political committee, would not discuss his political donations, a representative said. Attempts to reach Donald Sussman, a Clinton megadonor who gave Gillum $1.5 million, were unsuccessful, but he has yet to make a contribution to Florida Democrats this cycle.
Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, a longtime Democratic donor, said he believed Crist had “$100 million in name recognition” and therefore would not need the kind of resources that other candidates might have to seriously challenge DeSantis. Crist was first elected to the state legislature in the 1990s and is a former Republican governor who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014 before winning three terms in the U.S. House.
Morgan gave Gillum $250,000 four years ago, but he’s not sure if he’ll write a check for Crist, who he once employed at his law firm.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Morgan said. “I think Charlie has a very, very difficult road to travel. And I’ve already wasted some money.”
A major donor is certainly on the fringes of this cycle. NextGen America, the progressive organization funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, donated $2.8 million to Gillum in 2018. But NextGen has since halted donations to individual candidates, President and CEO Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez said. . Nor does the organization intend to help register and mobilize voters in Florida, as it did four years ago.
“It’s more than a question of resources,” she said. “We would love to be in every state, but we knew we had done a good job in Florida and needed to be invested in other critical senatorial races in other states.”
Among all the other headwinds facing Democrats here is the reality that Florida — a state of 21 million people divided into 10 media markets, some of which require advertising in Spanish — is a notoriously expensive state. to lead a statewide campaign.
A particularly brutal redistricting process has also left Florida with few competitive House and state legislative races that can spark donor interest in helping flip a state, said Alexandra Acker-Lyons, a political consultant who advises Democratic donors.
“Races are won and lost by 1% in Florida, but sometimes it takes $100 million to get that 1%,” Acker-Lyons said. “But we can’t cancel Florida. It’s a suicide mission as a party.”
Can the DeSantis name raise money for Democrats too?
By framing the race around DeSantis’ bruises ahead of a possible run for president in 2024, the Crist campaign hopes to convince donors to return to Florida. DeSantis has become one of the nation’s most recognizable political figures, and few Republicans seem to get under the Democrats’ skin more than the Florida executive.
After Crist secured the nomination, the DGA sent a mass message to its donor list centered around DeSantis’ defeat. It has raised more money than any post-primary fundraising email this cycle, according to a source with knowledge of party finances.
Crist’s team also notes that DeSantis only beat Gillum in 2018 by 32,000 out of 8.2 million votes cast. They don’t believe the state has shifted dramatically to the right in the four years since, even though registered Republicans now outnumber Democrats here by about 200,000, a complete reversal from the last decade.
“For the past 22 years, the Governor’s Mansion has been won in the single digits,” Crist strategist Joshua Karp told CNN. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the burden of proving we have a game plan to win. That’s what we try to do and we think it works.”
But while the razor-thin race seemed to solidify Florida’s status as a perennial swing state, it also suggested that Democrats here lacked the killer instinct to push a competitive race to the top. Indeed, some Democratic donors feel bitten by Gillum’s narrow defeat after helping him raise $53 million, Acker-Lyons said.
“Florida being the red dot in our happy blue dance was tough on people,” she said.