ORLANDO, Fla. – Democrats fear that 2022 could be the year Florida is firmly established as a red state.
With Election Day just over a week away, Republicans appear poised to take control of the state again. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) leads by a wide margin over his Democratic rival, former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), while Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is trying to break through in an effort to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Of course, one election alone does not indicate a trend. But a strong Republican showing next month would add to the GOP’s winning streak in Florida at a time when many Democrats are already questioning their future prospects in a state once considered the nation’s battleground state.
“I don’t think anybody expected us to get away with it in 2022,” said one Florida Democrat. “But we also have to recognize that there are some deeper issues here. Florida is an extremely populist state. It’s also a conservative state.”
The outlook is already dire for Florida Democrats. Last fall, the number of registered Republican voters surpassed the number of registered Democrats for the first time in the state’s modern political history. And that edge has only expanded since then.
As of November 2021, there were about 6,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats. By the end of September, that advantage was nearly 300,000, according to data compiled by the state. By comparison, in 2008, when former President Obama carried Florida by about 200,000 votes, the state had nearly 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Another troubling sign for Florida Democrats is that Republicans pulled ahead in Thursday’s early voting. Democrats have typically relied on building a strong early voting advantage to make up for shortfalls in Election Day voting, which is usually dominated by Republicans.
At the same time, the state Democratic Party is facing another upheaval. Thomas Kennedy, a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), on Thursday called on state party chairman Manny Diaz to step down after mid-term, saying the party needs new leadership if Democrats are to remain a political force in Florida.
In the interview, Kennedy acknowledged that some of the party’s woes in Florida were beyond his immediate control and that he never expected Democrats to make big gains in Florida in 2022, given the tough political environment the party faces nationally.
But he said Democrats have also failed to build the kind of long-term organizational and political structures in Florida that give Republicans the upper hand in the state.
“There are external factors — gerrymandering, corporate interests that are against us, population growth,” Kennedy said. “But as Democrats, we have to admit that our infrastructure is bad. Our news is shit. We’re neglecting Hispanic outreach and Haitian outreach.”
“We went full on the abortion issue — which was really important and something we should be talking about — but we completely neglected the economic issue, and that’s been a problem for national Democrats overall.”
While Republican dominance in Florida is nothing new — the GOP has controlled both the governor’s mansion and the state Legislature for more than two decades — the state’s political shift has come into sharper relief in the six years since former President Donald Trump first carried the state.
Former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a longtime mainstay of the state’s Democratic politics, narrowly lost re-election in 2018 to then-Gov. Rick Scott. That same year, Democrats missed an opportunity to reclaim the governor’s seat when their candidate, Andrew Gillum, lost to DeSantis.
The 2020 election was even more alarming for Democrats. Trump won Florida for the second time by an even larger three-point lead — a relative landslide in a state where elections are often decided by 1 point or less. The victory also gave him gains among Hispanic voters, particularly in heavily Democratic South Florida.
Now, with Election Day just over a week away and early voting already underway, Democrats are bracing themselves for another tough outcome.
Florida is poised to host its fewest competitive House races in years after the Republican-controlled state legislature approved a new congressional map pushed by DeSantis that created four new Republican-leaning seats and reduced the number of highly competitive districts by four.
In the closely watched race for governor, DeSantis has built up a significant lead over Crist, and the FiveThirtyEight average of the race has him ahead by nearly 10 points. His political operation — including his campaign and statewide political action committee — has raised more than $177 million, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics. Crist, meanwhile, drew only a small fraction of that.
The US Senate race doesn’t look much brighter for Democrats. Rubio holds a 7-point lead over Demings in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. In an interview with The Associated Press published earlier this week, Demings acknowledged the challenges her party faces in reaching voters.
“We have to do a better job of telling our stories and making it clear who is really on the side of the people who have to go to work every day,” Demings told the television service.
If the polls paint an accurate picture of what’s to come — and, of course, there’s no guarantee they will — the 2022 midterms could mark the stunning end of an era for a state where the margin of victory is no longer measured by a few hundred or a thousand votes.
Pundits and strategists say the GOP’s success in Florida is due to a long list of factors. Retirees have long flocked to the state to live out their twilight years, and many of those seniors simply tend to be more conservative.
At the same time, Florida’s population swelled during the COVID-19 pandemic as the state gained a reputation as a haven from pandemic restrictions and mandates imposed in other states. Republicans say that drove many new residents to the GOP.
On a stretch of I-95 near the Florida-Georgia border, this theory is summed up by a billboard that reads: “Welcome to Florida. Remember why you came. Vote red.”
“Certainly, over time, population growth has been the primary driver of political change in Florida for decades,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “And it certainly fueled the rise of Republicans in the state.
“Over time, as more and more people move to Florida — 2 to 3 million people a decade move to the state for about five to six decades straight — it’s going to absolutely change things.”
It’s not yet clear whether Florida’s shift to the right will be a permanent part of state politics. Florida is notoriously unpredictable, and the political winds could shift in Democrats’ favor in the coming years, said Kennedy, the DNC member.
“I don’t think Florida will be a red state forever,” Kennedy said. “Things can change. But what we need to focus on is building infrastructure and a functional and robust state party. We need to prove that we can at least put up a good challenge; that we can still give the Republicans a run for their money.”