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Is Florida still a swing state? The midterms will determine the answer

Can Democrats overcome Florida’s recent history and shifting voter registration numbers?
Veteran pols caution that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio are far from sure things to win their races.
Veteran pols caution that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio are far from sure things to win their races. [ AL DIAZ/ADIAZ@MIAMIHERALD.COM | Miami Herald ]
Published Aug. 29, 2022|Updated Aug. 29, 2022

The close of polls on the evening of Aug. 23 marked the end of Florida’s primary election and the start of an 11-week scramble in which the fate of a U.S. Senate seat, the governor’s mansion, and Florida’s status as a political battleground all hang in the balance.

It might not be the kind of election Florida voters are used to seeing.

In a state where campaigns are famously hyper-competitive, GOP candidates enter the general election — led by incumbents Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio — at a clear advantage, bolstered by a surge in Republican voter registration and recent electoral trends that have pushed the state to the right.

It’s a shift that has left Democrats, headlined by gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist and Senate nominee Val Demings, trying to prove that their party can overcome the state’s recent history and win in Florida.

Related: What awaits Crist in battle against DeSantis for Florida governor

“A five-point spread for Republicans is huge in Florida, but I know they’re aiming for that,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who has turned into a frequent critic of the GOP. “DeSantis is targeting a six-point spread if he can get it. And I think the metrics line up favorably in Florida for a six-point win.”

Jolly and other veteran pols caution that DeSantis and Rubio are far from sure things to win, particularly after the Supreme Court earlier this year revoked the constitutional right to an abortion, incensing the Democrats’ base and troubling many moderate voters. And they add that Florida, even if it is becoming more Republican, is still more purple than red, thanks to a heterodox electorate that holds a diverse array of political views.

But Democrats nonetheless face some stiff headwinds, both nationally and in Florida. President Joe Biden’s approval rating sits at about 41%, according to an average of polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight, dragged down by rising inflation and dim views of the economy.

And even in better political climates, Democrats have struggled in recent elections in Florida: Former President Donald Trump won Florida in 2020 by more than 3 percentage points, even while losing the national popular vote by more than 4 percentage points. The win more than doubled his margin of victory in the state from 2016.

And in 2018, even amid a Democratic wave election that saw the party win back control of the U.S. House, nominees Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum each lost, to Republican Sen. Rick Scott and DeSantis, respectively.

Florida Republicans like DeSantis openly brag about the shift.

“It may be the case that Pennsylvania’s now the most important swing state in the country because we’ve gotten redder in Florida,” the governor said in the Keystone State earlier this month, at a rally in support of the state’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano.

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DeSantis’ visit to Pennsylvania was one of four states — including Arizona, New Mexico and Ohio — he held rallies in this month in a national barnstorm organized by the conservative group Turning Point Action in support of some of the party’s nominees for statewide offices. The events were unusual for a governor seeking reelection in less than three months, focusing on helping other candidates win voters instead of himself.

But DeSantis holds a significant cash advantage over Crist to start his race, and the nonpartisan political handicapping service Cook Political Report rates his race as “likely Republican.”

The state’s voter registration numbers, meanwhile, have shifted in the GOP’s favor: A Miami Herald analysis of the data shows that since 2018, all but two counties, Seminole and Alachua, have seen their share of registered Democratic voters decline. The GOP now holds an overall registration edge in the state of less than one percentage point.

“Obviously, you always want for us to have the higher registration numbers,” said Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Democratic congresswoman from Miami who lost her reelection bid in 2020. “But it doesn’t surprise me.”

Mucarsel-Powell emphasized that she thought Demings and Crist could win, arguing that they just need to raise enough money to be able to get their message out.

“It comes down to communicating directly with Floridians,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “So that’s going to be the big question mark: Who is going to have resources to reach out to voters who don’t have time to pay attention? That’s the key.”

In the Senate race, in particular, Democrats should have more than enough money to reach out to voters. Demings, a congresswoman from Orlando, has outraised Rubio so far this year, allowing her to run more TV and radio ads early in her race against the incumbent.

Related: Val Demings outspending Marco Rubio in a big way in TV, radio campaign ads

Democrats have also taken heart at Biden’s recent legislative success on Capitol Hill, including passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Coupled with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the policy wins will help excite a Democratic base that was disaffected with politics only a few short months ago, party operatives argue.

They add that the FBI’s search and seizure of documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home has distracted the GOP from its core message on the economy.

“Republicans wanted to go into November talking about Joe Biden, not Donald Trump,” Jolly said. “And, frankly, not about Dobbs and Roe v. Wade, and those two catalyzing issues have had us reconsidering whether Democrats could actually defy history.”

Miami Herald data reporter Ana Chacin contributed to this report.

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