As Ron DeSantis slips in Florida polls, Democratic challengers for governor are starting to emerge

It's two years away, but some contenders are seeing their profiles rise amid the coronavirus crises
Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried speaks during the during the Governor's Luncheon at the Florida State Fair in Tampa earlier this year. (OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times)
Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried speaks during the during the Governor's Luncheon at the Florida State Fair in Tampa earlier this year. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times) [ JONES, OCTAVIO | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published July 19, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis entered this year as one of the country’s most popular governors. Florida Democrats could hardly lay a finger on him.

But as DeSantis’ standing slides under the immense scrutiny of his coronavirus response, the Democrats most often discussed as potential challengers for his office — like Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham — are stepping out to criticize the Republican leader more and more. Meanwhile, the mounting economic and public health crises have elevated several other Democrats, especially mayors, widening the field of 2022 contenders.

“Eight months ago, DeSantis’ numbers were phenomenal and this would never have been a conversation,” said Reggie Cardozo, a Democratic strategist in Florida. “But it is now.”

Any conversation among Democrats about 2022 begins with Fried, the only person from the party who holds statewide office. Fried struck a more bipartisan tone early in her tenure, but has gained an edge with Florida under siege from the virus and DeSantis struggling to control the spread. Last week, Fried told CNN that DeSantis has “lost the faith and trust of the people of this state.” She regularly uses her bully pulpit to encourage people to wear masks, social distance and avoid events.

For his part, DeSantis through his actions has sidelined Fried; he kept her off his coronavirus reopen task force and has canceled most Cabinet meetings since the coronavirus first arrived in March. Fried’s supporters say it’s a sign that the former marijuana lobbyist is getting under DeSantis’ skin, proof she’s a viable alternative for voters contemplating how a Democrat would have handled the crisis.

“For me, she has become a parallel leader to DeSantis,” said Ira Statfeld, a home-furnishings entrepreneur and Democratic donor in South Florida. “I think she has to be taken very, very seriously.”

Fried has not yet said if she will run for reelection or challenge DeSantis, but she has continued her political fundraising from the moment she took office. Her political committee has about $850,000 on hand, boosted in June by a $75,000 check from billionaire Democratic bundler Marsha Laufer. Recent reports also suggested there was discord within her political team after an incident between her and her fianceé at a Ft. Lauderdale hotel ended with police called to the scene.

“Does she want to run against Wilton Simpson (the incoming Senate President and potential Republican candidate agriculture commissioner who enjoys vast financial reserves), or does she want to run against Ron DeSantis?” Cardozo asked. He suggested that he would lean toward the latter, though he added he didn’t know Fried’s ambitions.

Graham has long been rumored to want another shot at the nomination after coming in second in the 2018 primary to former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. Publicly, she has done little to tamp down that speculation. She vigorously tweets at DeSantis most days, second-guessing his decisions and calling on him to do more.

In an interview this week, Graham said she doesn’t expect herself or anyone to make a decision on whether to run until after Nov. 3′s presidential election.

“I don’t know what my future holds, but I do know we need good leadership in this state and Ron DeSantis isn’t it,” Graham said.

Gillum was a 2022 front-runner until earlier this year when police found him in a South Beach hotel room with a collapsed companion and baggies of crystal meth. Gillum went to rehab and stepped down from all publicly visible roles.

Another 2018 contender, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, recently penned an op-ed on the coronavirus for the Orlando Sentinel that was perceived in Democratic circles as a trial balloon for a 2022 run. The piece attempted to persuade DeSantis to order a mask mandate by appealing to the Republican’s military background.

“I implore Gov. DeSantis to mandate the wearing of our combat helmets (i.e., masks) during this war to reduce the number of injuries and casualties,” Levine wrote.

Former Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said he thinks Floridians will want someone fresh in 2022 and the party should look to the city’s Democratic mayors, like St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman, Tampa’s Jane Castor, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer and Miami Beach’s Dan Gelber.

While DeSantis is one of a handful of governors whose standing with the public has plummeted during the pandemic, Florida’s local mayors have generally received high marks for how they’ve tackled the virus. A recent CBS News survey found 53 percent of Floridians disapprove of DeSantis’ coronavirus response, and the governor has trended on Twitter under the hashtags #resigndesantis and #deathsantis.

Last week, Gelber confronted DeSantis in person over the state’s coronavirus response at an event the governor held with South Florida mayors (though, a brief clip of Gelber commending DeSantis for talking to a bipartisan group also made it into a campaign-style video released by the governor’s office).

“Particularly in the aftermath of the virus, people will see the value of those who have executive experience,” Buckhorn said. “Mayors know how to balance a budget and make tough decisions as a result of the financial wreckage. The mayors will be, and should be, in this conversation and I think they’ll do better than Tallahassee creatures.”

Tampa fundraiser and political consultant Ana Cruz said there is a wildcard who could significantly shake up the field in the governor’s race: U.S. Rep. Val Demings. The Orlando Democrat and former police chief is on the short list to be presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, and her growing influence in the party would make her a force in any race she chooses to get involved in, Cruz said. But she’s also discussed as a possible candidate to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, as is her Winter Park neighbor, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

“Val is genuine and I think people are looking for genuine,” Cruz said.

Other rising Democratic names have emerged out of the state’s unemployment crisis, like state Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami and state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando. Both have generated massive followings on social media for helping people all around the state access financial aid despite hurdles created by the state’s broken benefits system.

“Going into 2022, Democrats have a far wider bench because this moment in time has really highlighted the strength of local leaders and some of our state legislatures who are rising to the occasion,” said Christian Ulvert, a Miami-area Democratic strategist.

But John Morgan, the personal injury attorney who donated heavily to Democrats in 2018, said he’s unsure Democrats will be able to run against DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus crisis in 2022. If the death toll does not reach New York levels and the state rebounds economically, DeSantis may instead emerge as strong as he was before the virus hit the state.

“He’s either going to be a hero or the goat,” Morgan said. “But it’s too soon to tell.”