Governor Ron DeSantis’ inability to close the gap in the polls against Donald Trump has injected newfound energy into a party that has long grappled with political obscurity.
Although Governor Ron DeSantis was absent from Miami Beach on Saturday night, his influence was strongly felt. The Florida Democratic Party convened its annual Leadership Blue gala, marking the party’s largest gathering since DeSantis clinched a sweeping victory in his re-election campaign, winning by a staggering margin of nearly 20 percentage points. This triumph, which seemed to deliver a fatal blow to Florida Democrats and propel DeSantis towards a 2024 presidential bid, served as a defining moment.
However, the prevailing mood over the weekend did not reflect a party in decline. DeSantis’ presidential campaign, trailing significantly behind Donald Trump in public opinion polls, has revitalized Democrats who were desperate for a resurgence. Actor Bradley Whitford, a Democratic activist and renowned for his role in the TV series “The West Wing,” delivered the keynote address at the gala. In his speech, he passionately rallied the Florida Democratic Party and launched scathing attacks on DeSantis. Whitford’s fiery remark branding DeSantis as a “f—– coward” garnered a standing ovation. He continued, “He is afraid of history. He is afraid of people different than him. He is afraid of Donald Trump.” Whitford’s quip mocking DeSantis’ “Top Gov” political ad, which portrayed him as a fighter pilot reminiscent of Tom Cruise in “Top Gun,” was met with great applause. He humorously added, “That’s right, Top Gov is a bit of a bottom.” Whitford also took pleasure in DeSantis’ dismal polling performance against Trump, asserting, “The more people get to know Ronnie D… the less they seem to like him.” At the time of reporting, DeSantis’ campaign had not responded to requests for comment.
Despite the buoyant atmosphere at the gala, Florida Democrats continue to face significant institutional challenges as the 2024 election cycle unfolds. Republicans have achieved a historic milestone by surpassing Democrats in voter registration for the first time in Florida’s political history. Previously, Democrats held an advantage of roughly 700,000 registered voters in the mid-2000s. Moreover, the national Democratic Party has shifted its focus to states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona, considering them more cost-effective and trending towards blue. Consequently, the Florida party is no longer deemed a top priority.
Florida Democrats also find themselves without a candidate to challenge incumbent Republican Senator Rick Scott, making it the state’s most consequential non-presidential contest next year. Potential Democratic contenders include House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins, and former Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Mucarsel-Powell was spotted at the Fontainbleau on Miami Beach, where the gala took place, engaging in discussions with former Representative Val Demings, who unsuccessfully ran against Republican Senator Marco Rubio in 2022.
Since assuming office in January, Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried has worked diligently to invigorate a party that has been perceived as stagnant in recent years. During her opening speech at the gala’s main event, Fried not only aimed to rally party members but also challenged Republicans on themes typically associated with the political right. Asserting that conservatives do not hold an exclusive claim to the American flag, Fried declared emphatically, “Let me say this loud and clear, I am tired.” Pointing to the half dozen American flags adorning the stage behind her, she continued, “Well, they do not.” Fried’s entrance was accompanied by the iconic song “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, which echoed the theme of her speech and bore resemblance to “Never Back Down,” the name of the pro-DeSantis super PAC supporting his presidential bid. Fried also emphasized the unexpected wave of momentum with which Florida Democrats embarked on the 2024 election cycle, particularly highlighting Democrat Donna Deegan’s unexpected victory over DeSantis-backed Republican Daniel Davis in the mayor’s race in Jacksonville. “Winning local races is key to building statewide infrastructure,” Fried underscored. “We need to win again.”
Throughout the night, there was a recurring theme that despite enduring significant losses, Florida Democrats perceive a pathway back to relevance in what was once the nation’s largest swing state. Democratic Representative Fredricka Wilson stood on stage with the state’s Democratic congressional delegation, which currently holds only eight of the state’s 28 congressional seats, and urged the audience not to give up on Florida. Fried concluded her speech by reaffirming her commitment to reintroducing the Democratic Party into conservative strongholds across the state. She also couldn’t resist taking a playful jab at DeSantis’ footwear, which has garnered increased attention on the presidential campaign trail due to speculation about his use of elevated boots and shoes to appear taller. Fried remarked, “What people see us doing matters. That is why you will see me crisscross our state from Pensacola to Key West, showing up in places that have been forgotten by this party. I am not afraid to call out his bulls—-.” She added, “He has terrible taste in shoes… I just couldn’t help myself.”