‘There’s always deeper than rock bottom’: Florida Democrats gird for 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — An auto strike impacting Michigan. A prominent GOP Senate recruit in Pennsylvania. A pending campaign launch from a hardliner in Arizona. News just in recent days has put the battleground map into sharp relief.

But left out of the conversation is the nation’s erstwhile premier swing state: Florida.

After a shellacking in 2022 that saw GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio defeat their challengers by 19 and 16 points, respectively, Democrats are hoping to get off the mat next year. But Democrats’ attitude in the Sunshine State is gloomy heading into 2024 after years of missteps, donor disinterest and a decimated bench, leaving strategists resigned that any revitalization won’t right the ship before the general election, experts say.

“It’s hard to suggest there are stakes when the Democrats aren’t really competing in Florida,” said one Florida Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I don’t see what you would call any kind of an effort to try and capture the state.”

“There’s always deeper than rock bottom. That can still happen, I don’t know. We’ll find out after the 2024 results,” the strategist added.

Whether or not the party is able to bounce back has significant ramifications for next year, when Florida’s 30 electoral college votes will help play a significant role in the presidential race, Sen. Rick Scott seeks reelection as one of Democrats’ only targets and a small handful of competitive House districts could help decide a chamber currently controlled by just a five-seat margin.

But Democratic operatives in Florida admitted to ABC News that they’re starting out on their back foot.

Florida is part of the Biden campaign’s expansion map — essentially a demotion from being part of every presidential campaign’s main battleground plan for years. Easier paths to keep the Senate and flip the House run through other states — calculations that are anticipated to impact national investments.

“It has 28 congressional seats and 30 electoral votes. It’s always gonna be coveted,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida. “But I think if Florida Democrats don’t get their sh*t together, they could be taken off the map for an extended period of time until they prove themselves competent.”

Democrats blame their current position on a cocktail of blunders.

Several Democrats pointed to infighting in the state party for years, with Kennedy noting it’s had five different chairs since 2016, leading to incongruous leadership at a time when Republicans were gaining ground.

What’s more, Florida Democrats were hit hard by a confluence of national factors that are magnified within the state, including slippage with Hispanic and non-college-educated white voters who hold immense sway in Florida and pushback against the prominence of democratic socialism, a philosophy that often doesn’t resonate in a state where many immigrants have fled from communist dictatorships.

“When Democrats nationally start calling themselves democratic socialists, that pisses people off in Miami who are Cuban and Venezuelan and who fled socialistic countries and communist countries,” added John Morgan, a major Florida-based Democratic donor. “When you got people out there going, ‘I’m a democratic socialist,’ in South Florida, that’s just death. Then you couple that with that fleeting movement of ‘defund the police.’ Nobody wants to f—— defund the police.”

The party has also struggled to field candidates who can compete in one of the most expensive states in the nation, with Morgan rattling off a list of qualifications that would be hard for most would-be contenders to meet.

“It has to be somebody so big that they transcend politics and that their name ID is at least good coming out of the gate and would draw different money than traditional politicians do,” he said.

More broadly, though, the Democratic strategist pointed the finger at the national party and donors who they accused of writing Florida off in favor of alternate electoral paths and over disappointment in results in 2018 — when Democrats narrowly lost Senate and gubernatorial races.

All the while, Republicans were hard at work crafting a machine after setbacks in 2012.

“It was not memorialized on paper. But the response to that was, ‘F— it. We’re out of Florida,'” the strategist said of the 2018 elections.

“It’s like asking why the taxicab industry was so successful before the arrival of Uber. The difference is, there was massive disruption because the Republicans after the 2012 elections panicked, freaked out and correctly saw that they were facing electoral extinction at the national level if Florida was going to go the way of California, and in response to that, quadrupled down with a permanent campaign infrastructure to make sure that the state was not lost. And in response to that, the Democrats literally did absolutely nothing,” the strategist added.

To be sure, not all Democrats were as harsh.

“Obviously, there’s work to be done,” veteran Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale said. “I’m not as down on the state as some people are. I don’t think that one election cycle means that Florida has somehow magically gone from a purplish or light red state to a forever red state.”

Many Democrats who spoke to ABC News also specifically touted the work of Nikki Fried, the newest state party chair.

Kennedy told ABC News he’s seen notable improvement from the state party, noting new communications efforts, Fried’s outreach to county parties and a $1 million voter registration push.

In an interview, Fried split the state party’s work into three main “buckets”: improving communications, fundraising and internal structure.

“All three of those moving parts are essential and allows us, when you have all three of those silos working, then we also can then start focusing on year-round organizing, which we haven’t been doing, door knocking year-round, voter registration,” said Fried, who also boasted of renewed interest from donors.

“It is an absolutely accurate statement that there wasn’t investment here in 2022,” she said. “That is not going to be the case in ’24.”

Democrats have also started spending money and recruiting in the state, with the Biden campaign reserving Spanish-language ads and Senate Democrats recruiting former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — an Ecuadorian immigrant who may be able to more effectively speak to Hispanic voters in South Florida who defected to Republicans in recent years — to challenge Scott.

“I do think the Biden campaign running Spanish language ads, which is probably one of the biggest challenges we have right now, the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] recruiting a Latina woman, that’s really smart stuff, and it gives us a chance over the next year to hopefully get the state in a better place,” Schale said.

Also giving Democrats a sliver of optimism are their upset victory in the Jacksonville mayoral race in May and an abortion referendum that will likely take place next year — which, if similar to other votes in other states, could gin up Democratic enthusiasm.

“I think they see that light at the end of the tunnel,” Kennedy said.

Still, it’s unclear whether Democrats’ efforts are enough to dig themselves out of the deep hole that’s been dug.

“They made the announcement a couple of months back that they were going to invest $1 million in voter registration as if that was a big deal,” the Florida Democratic strategist said. “Add a couple of zeros to that if you’re serious about what you want to do here.”

“In politics, circumstances can change, and they can change quickly,” the person conceded. “But is Florida part of their plans today on the pathway to 270 [electoral college votes]? Hell no.”

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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