Florida Democrats, hoping to claw their way back from the brink of political irrelevance, seized on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ struggling presidential campaign on Saturday to unite a deeply fractured political coalition ahead of the 2024 elections.
The Florida Democratic Party’s annual Leadership Blue weekend at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach was billed by party leaders as a kind of launch party for a more aggressive, reenergized state party after years of financial difficulties and lackluster election results. Throughout the day on Saturday, state and local party members met in various workshops and seminars to talk through how they plan on reasserting themselves in Florida after a particularly difficult midterm election in 2022 that saw Democrats suffer some of their deepest-ever losses in the state.
Yet DeSantis, who is running in a distant second place behind former President Donald Trump in most polls of the GOP presidential primary, proved to be the strongest uniting force for party members and activists attending the conference.
Speaking at a Saturday evening fundraising gala, Nikki Fried, the former state agriculture commissioner who took over as chair of the Florida Democratic Party in February, stated her party’s mission in blunt terms: “Back Ron DeSantis into a corner and call out his bulls--t.”
Fried’s message was an attempt to overcome the state of a party that remains deeply frustrated and divided after years of political struggles. There are now nearly 500,000 more registered Republican voters in the state than Democratic voters, the GOP holds super majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and for the first time since Reconstruction, there’s not a single Democrat in a statewide elected office.
Fried’s remarks — and those of other speakers on Saturday night — also displayed a coarser, more aggressive Florida Democratic Party than in the past.
The gala’s keynote speaker, actor and Democratic activist Bradley Whitford, mocked DeSantis (whom he dubbed “Little Ronny D”) as a “cocky little wannabe MAGA dictator,” using the acronym for “make America great again,” former President Donald Trump’s main political slogan.
At another point in his speech, Whitford was even more crass.
“Ron DeSantis is a f—ing coward,” Whitford said. “He’s afraid of history. He’s afraid of people loving each other. He’s afraid of people who are different from him. He’s afraid of Donald Trump.”
To cap off the evening: a drag show that served as an overt dig at DeSantis, who signed legislation earlier this year that restricts children from attending certain performances.
A spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The tone of the weekend was significantly more optimistic than Florida Democrats have gotten used to in recent months.
Multiple speakers, including Fried and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, touted the conference as the start of a “new day” for Florida Democrats, while former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell mused that 2023 felt similar to 2017, the year she won a key South Florida U.S. House seat and Democrats captured a majority in the lower chamber of Congress.
“I’m feeling that there is an energy on the ground similar to what I felt in 2017,” she told the Miami Herald. “When a political party becomes so extreme against the interests of the people that they’re serving, which is exactly what the Republicans have done here in the state of Florida, people start rejecting those policies, the party, the politicians that have been representing them.”
There may be at least a few reasons for Democrats to believe that things are on the upswing in Florida.
Democrat Donna Deegan flipped control of the Jacksonville mayor’s office in May, notching a win over a DeSantis-endorsed Republican that her party held up as a sign of hope after a rough midterm election.
The conference itself is also likely to rake in a substantial amount of money for the party. Tickets to the gala, which cost $300 each, sold out quickly, and Fried said that money had continued to trickle in throughout the weekend, though she declined to provide an exact amount or estimate of how much the party had raised.
Yet plenty of attendees had their own prescriptions for fixing Democrats’ struggles in Florida.
Susan Khoury, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the Democratic nomination for a Miami-Dade County Commission seat, said that Florida Democrats needed to be “more vocal” and actively contest even the most difficult offices for Democrats to win.
“To me, every single race in Miami-Dade County should have a Democratic person running,” Khoury said. “You shouldn’t allow anybody to win without any competition. You earn your votes. If they deserve it, they’ll win it.”
Millie Herrera, a Miami businessperson who served on the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee, said that Democrats had “abandoned the Hispanic community” and needed to rethink their strategy for winning back Hispanic voters in South Florida, especially after the 2022 midterm elections, which saw DeSantis win Miami-Dade County.
“We need to have Puerto Ricans knocking on Puerto Rican doors. We need to have Cuban Americans knocking on Cuban American doors,” Herrera said. “We need to be there.”
Annette Taddeo, a former state senator from Miami who challenged Fried for Florida Democratic Party chair earlier this year, said it was too early to make a judgment call about the direction of the state party and its prospects, noting that Fried and her team were still in the early phases of rebuilding the organization.
Whether they are able to do that, she added, will depend on whether they can raise the money to compete with Republicans on the ground.
“You could have the best plan in the world, but if you’re not raising the money, how are you going to pay for any of this?” she said.