Florida Democrats are girding to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott next year. The one thing missing so far: an established candidate.
Democratic Party leaders in both Florida and Washington, D.C., have started reaching out to potential candidates in an effort to gauge their interest in a Senate run. While no major challenger has stepped up to the plate, at least a few prominent Democrats have expressed interest in the race.
Former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who lost reelection in a key South Florida House
district to Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez in 2020, acknowledged during the Florida Democratic Party’s annual conference in Miami Beach last weekend that she had been approached about challenging Scott in 2024 and said she is considering a bid.
Florida State House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell is also said to be considering a Senate run, as is Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County School Board member who has gained a reputation for challenging Republicans on education-related culture war issues.
Driskell said that her work in the state House remains her priority, but did not explicitly rule out a Senate bid. Jenkins, who was given a prime speaking slot at the Florida Democratic Party’s fundraising gala last weekend, told the Miami Herald that she’s already begun to put together a team to consider what a Senate campaign would look like. She said a decision on running is likely to come “sooner than later.”
“This seat can obviously not go uncontested,” Jenkins said. “We need a candidate that’s dynamic, that can inspire young people to turn out. And whoever that person ends up being, I will absolutely support them.”
Florida Democrats are particularly eager to put up a top-tier candidate against Scott, believing that a win — or at least a formidable challenge — would help them reverse the narrative that Florida is rapidly becoming a lost cause for their party. National Democrats are also eyeing the state as a rare opportunity to go on offense in an election year in which some of their most vulnerable incumbent senators will be on the ballot.
Scott, meanwhile, has butted heads with Republican leaders in Washington. And while the former two-term governor has never lost an election, his three statewide wins have all come by narrow margins.
Nikki Fried, the chairperson of the Florida Democratic Party, has insisted that state and national Democratic leaders are committed to beating Scott in 2024. At a news conference last weekend, she said that she had received assurances from national party leaders, including Democratic National Committee chairperson Jamie Harrison, that flipping Scott’s Senate seat is a “top priority” for the party.
In a statement to the Herald on Tuesday, Fried also said that she believes Scott is vulnerable to a challenge. She said her party is “ready to seize on the momentum we’ve built over the summer through our new rebrand, grassroots outreach and fundraising efforts.”
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“As for who is running, all I’ll say right now is that we will support a formidable Senate candidate — and we expect to win,” she said.
Finding a formidable candidate is only part of the battle for Democrats. Scott, who won his Senate seat in 2018, is heading into his first reelection bid with the advantage of incumbency and almost-limitless financial resources to draw from.
He raised more than $1.5 million for his campaign in the second quarter of the year and has nearly $3 million in the bank. Beyond that, Scott has a vast personal fortune that he’s drawn from in the past to fund his political ambitions. During his first Senate run in 2018, he spent nearly $64 million of his own money to defeat then-Sen. Bill Nelson, according to federal campaign finance records.
There are broader challenges for Democrats. The party hasn’t won a Senate race in Florida since 2012 and is in the midst of rebuilding after a devastating 2022 midterm election cycle that saw Republicans win supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis coast to a 19-point reelection victory.
Democrats also have significant ground to make up in South Florida, especially in Miami. For decades, Miami-Dade County was considered relatively safe territory for Democrats running in statewide races, and a key population center for the party to bank votes. That changed last year when both DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio won Florida’s largest county by 11 and 9 percentage points, respectively.
Joshua Karp, a Democratic consultant who has worked on multiple statewide campaigns in Florida, said that any effort to reassert the state Democratic Party as a real political force would have to begin in South Florida.
“Democrats need a candidate who’s going to be an inspiration to a party that desperately needs revitalizing,” Karp said. “And that revitalizing has to start in South Florida, where the party’s been losing ground for years.”
The 2024 Senate race in Florida isn’t the only one posing a challenge for Democrats.
Nationally, the party is trying to defend the seats of 23 Senate incumbents, including several in Republican-leaning states, like West Virginia, Ohio and Montana, as well as perennial battlegrounds like Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those races are likely to pull national resources away from Florida, where statewide campaigns are notoriously expensive.
Still, national Democrats said that Florida’s U.S. Senate race is still on their radar, pointing to Scott’s track record of narrow election wins and noting that next year’s presidential election could help boost Democratic voter turnout after an abysmal showing in Florida last year.
“There are pythons more popular than Rick Scott’s plan to cut Medicare and Social Security,” Maevy Coyle, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said. “Democrats will look for every opportunity to put Republicans on defense, including in states like Florida.”
Scott came under fire from Democrats and even fellow Republicans last year after he released a 12-point policy plan that included a call to sunset all federal programs, including Medicare and Social Security. He later walked back that proposal, carving out an exemption for those programs.
Priscilla Ivasco, the communications director for Scott’s reelection campaign, said that Florida’s junior senator “isn’t taking anything for granted and like he’s done in past races he’s running full steam ahead, raising money and traveling the state meeting with Floridians.”
But she was also quick to note that Democrats have yet to field a major candidate against Scott. The only well-known Democrat who has filed paperwork for a Senate bid is former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a liberal firebrand who has made multiple attempts at a political comeback since losing a Senate primary in 2016.
“Meanwhile the Florida Democratic Party continues to struggle to find a legitimate opponent for this cycle, besides disgraced former Congressman Alan Grayson,” Ivasco said in a statement. “Every time we think the Florida Democratic Party has hit a new low, they find new ways to surprise us. Betting against Senator Scott is never smart, and Florida Democrats know that better than anyone.”