With just over two months remaining until Florida Democrats will choose a nominee, the race remains fluid with a field of largely flawed candidates. All five of the major candidates have compelling stories but also significant drawbacks that could jeopardize the ability of the party to win the office in November. The GOP will nominate either Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam or Congressman Ron DeSantis. While Putnam has stronger residual statewide name ID and historic ties to leadership as one of the blue-bloods of this state, DeSantis is the candidate of the Donald Trump wing of the GOP and thus probably will have hard-core conservative activists firmly behind him.
Democrats sense an opportunity in this Governor’s race due to national trends but for some in the party the field is largely uninspiring and the party’s own record in statewide races for governor and cabinet (losing 17 of the last 18 races, a winning percentage of under 6%) doesn’t build confidence in this effort. However, while the GOP won the Governorship in the previous off-year Democratic wave election during this period in 2006, that year Democrats did pick up five State House seats, a State Senate seat and the Chief Financial Officer’s (CFO) position in the cabinet.
The expected blue wave in November will occur – but the size of the wave now is in more doubt than it was a few months ago. The success of President Trump’s regressive tax cuts have likely boosted potential GOP fortunes in wealthier coastal areas of the state – areas where Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his social conservatism may have hurt turnout and enthusiasm. Furthermore, Governor Rick Scott remains a formidable force in Florida politics and the GOP brand may be more closely connected to him this November than Trump – though that remains to be seen.
Democrats have been counting on a spike in Hispanic/Latino turnout thanks to President Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric. However, Governor Scott has aggressively courted Hispanic/Latino voters, most recently running frequent ads during World Cup soccer matches on Spanish-language Telemundo affiliates. Scott’s appeal to these voters might cut Democratic margins down ballot or we may see a decline in the percentage of the electorate that is Hispanic/Latino in much the same fashion as we did between the 2012 and 2014 elections in Florida.
As we’ve discussed previously at TFS, Democrats like to think that demographic shifts and the preponderance of new residents favor them. But as we’ve previously argued, Republicans are gaining further strength in exurban areas and retirement communities. As Politico Magazine chronicled this week, the GOP’s strength in these sorts of areas like the Villages allows them to fight hard for continued statewide dominance in Florida.
Each of the three previous or current officeholders running for the Democratic nomination (Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham) have a built-in political constituency – not just supporters but lobbyists and consultants that are pushing their candidacies. This has led to the type of acrimony and division within the party which seems to happen every time their is a contentious primary. Now add to that the candidacy of Jeff Greene who has quite frankly an open door to make a run at the nomination given his wealth and extensive contacts throughout the state. Chris King remains an outsider but one who has impressed many of the more informed voters at least to this point in time.
As assumption late last year and early in 2018 that the Democrats would win the Governorship for the first time in almost a quarter century has given way now to a greater sense of reality. While 2018 should be a strong Democratic year, the Governor’s race still remains a challenge and perhaps even an uphill struggle.