Florida Dems, GOP disagree on 2021 election lessons

A year from now Florida — a state much friendlier to the GOP than Virginia or New Jersey — will have its own statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senate.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. [ DREW ANGERER | AP ]
Published Nov. 3, 2021

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, doughnut in hand on Wednesday morning, smiled as he described election night as his “Super Bowl.”

The Miami Republican saw his party flip the high-profile Virginia governor’s race and nearly score a major gubernatorial upset in New Jersey — and the GOP performed well in competitive down-ballot races across the country, including a Black woman lieutenant governor in Virginia and a Cuban-American attorney general who is on the verge of winning in the same state.

The major takeaway for Diaz-Balart? Voters rejected government control.

“The American people don’t welcome, never bought into this agenda of the government running everybody’s lives,” Diaz-Balart said. “I think there’s a pretty clear rejection of that, and so it’s going to be interesting to see how the Democratic leadership responds. Do they double down on their big brother government approach, or do they kind of get the message from the American people?”

A year from now Florida — a state much friendlier to the GOP than Virginia or New Jersey — will have its own statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senate. Incumbents Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio were already favored, but Tuesday’s results show that Democrats will have an uphill challenge to win a governor’s seat they haven’t won since 1994 and a U.S. Senate seat that’s been in GOP hands since 2005.

“We’ve now seen after Virginia that people are willing to fight back, and you know I’m willing to fight back,” DeSantis said at a West Palm Beach event on Wednesday. “And we are fighting.”

Looking ahead to ‘22

Yet after the GOP’s performance on Tuesday — winning competitive elections with high turnout — Florida Democrats and Republicans are in disagreement about what the results mean for 2022.

Republicans echo Diaz-Balart’s position, arguing that parents across demographic lines were tired of policies that kept their children in virtual classrooms during the pandemic and oppose President Joe Biden’s proposed expansion of social programs. Democrats are adamant in a GOP-controlled state like Florida the opposite will happen, that voters will tire of a Republican-led “culture war” that is likely coming after the Virginia and New Jersey results.

“If you looked at [Glenn] Youngkin and what he did, Republicans are about to go on an all-out culture war,” Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones said. “Democrats better figure out extremely quickly what’s going to be their response to protecting the history of Black folks. They [Republicans] are running on critical race theory, they are using this culture war into scaring the white electorate into voting against Democrats and if Democrats don’t figure out what the response is going to be they’re going to lose a lot of Black votes in the upcoming election and our allies.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said DeSantis in particular will not be able to run a campaign similar to Youngkin’s because he will need to defend his record in office and a political career that took off after he was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in 2017.

“Ron DeSantis is a Donald Trump clone,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Youngkin ran like Donald Trump is a toxic waste site, and Ron DeSantis carves himself as a Donald Trump clone. The expectation is completely different. It’s just a dramatically different election than the Virginia election last night and dramatically different candidates.”

Rubio and Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the Senate GOP’s 2022 campaign arm, both said Democrats in states like Florida are seeing that their message and policy positions are unpopular. In the days before Virginia’s election, Rubio’s campaign argued that their likely opponent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, should answer for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s debate gaffe where he said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

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McAuliffe’s remark was replayed on hundreds of TV ads in the race’s final weeks.

“At a time when parents are rightly worried about an increase in divisive and sexually-explicit material being taught in schools, Floridians deserve to know: Does Demings share McAuliffe’s belief that parents should stay out of schools?” Rubio campaign spokesperson Elizabeth Gregory said in a statement before the election.

Virginia outcome is affirmation for GOP strategy

For Republicans, the Virginia race is validation of their efforts in Florida since the 2020 election. They see DeSantis, who has spent months taking his message to Republican donors at fundraisers around the country, as the leader of a growing national and conservative resistance to federal overreach.

Republicans also see DeSantis’ decision to keep schools through 2021 without any restrictions and openly waging a fight against school officials who supported mask requirements for children as appealing to some parents in a state like Virginia, where schools took longer to phase out of a virtual-only system.

“How can you possibly think that in any possible way that you have a serious campaign in a state like Florida where Trump won decidedly?” said Joanna Rodriguez, deputy communications director for the Republican Governors Association. “States like Florida are part of the reason people in Virginia were so frustrated.”

Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said she viewed Tuesday’s election as a “wake up call” for Democrats in Florida. In her view, it was a rejection of career politicians but also a sign that candidates needed to spell out their values.

“Our message has...always has been about the economy. About jobs and fighting for the individual,” Fried said. “We as Democrats have to learn the lessons from last night. That we take groups for granted, that we haven’t had a succinct message.”

Fried also tweeted her campaign slogan, that it’s time for “something new,” a shot at primary opponent and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist. Crist, like McAuliffe, is a former governor attempting to win back his old job.

In a statement, Crist said it’s important for Democrats to define themselves to voters in 2022. Both centrist and progressive Democrats agreed that focusing too much on Trump won’t be enough to win over swing voters next year.

“It’s also clear that the forces of disinformation and division are still on the move,” Crist said. “With one year out from the ‘22 elections, we have to redouble our efforts to make clear what Democrats stand for — and just as importantly, what we don’t.”

There are differences in Florida

But it’s not to say either party views the Virginia and New Jersey races as completely comparable to a state like Florida, where Republicans dominate every branch of state government, and to a candidate like DeSantis.

Fried views next year’s gubernatorial race as an opportunity for Democrats to appeal to voters who want to reject DeSantis’ rhetoric.

“We have a different election here because DeSantis has gone to such an extreme that the pendulum is going to swing back in our state,” said Fried. “I think there is a distinct difference between the two. DeSantis has radicalized the party, to the extreme. Youngkin is not there.”

DeSantis, Fried added, “has a short fuse, he’s angry, he’s creating division in our state.”

Rodriguez countered that DeSantis’ fight with the Biden administration on schools, a feud the White House and governor have embraced in recent months, will benefit Republican candidates with swing voters in Florida.

“What I think is important for people to recognize is that all of that can always go away… Without Ron DeSantis there, there’s no one to challenge Biden in Florida,” Rodriguez said.

Scott, who is not on the ballot in 2022 but will play a major role in determining which party controls the U.S. Senate next year, said the Republican Party is in a good position to win back many suburban voters that rejected Trump in 2020.

“Our polling and data, particularly with suburban voters, show us the nation is rejecting the Biden agenda and Democrat candidates, and that’s what voters in Virginia did tonight,” Scott said. “In November of 2022, I look forward to celebrating an even bigger win.”

DeSantis appeared emboldened by the GOP results. He spent Wednesday morning standing behind a lectern with the slogan “election integrity,” while railing against voter drop boxes and explaining the origins of the anti-Biden “Let’s Go Brandon” chant to a crowd of supporters in West Palm Beach. It was an official event for him as governor, but it looked and sounded like a campaign rally.

“We need people who are going to stand up, hold the line, not back down,” DeSantis said. “I’m doing that, we’re doing a lot. But I’ve only begun to fight in the state of Florida.”