These Democrats could thwart DeSantis, but they have little support

DeSantis may be a boogeyman to Democrats nationally, but donors haven’t shown up in these Florida cabinet races.
Aside from the unlikely scenario of Charlie Crist beating him in the governor’s race, Democrats’ best chance to thwart Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda lies with its candidates running for the state Cabinet seats.
Aside from the unlikely scenario of Charlie Crist beating him in the governor’s race, Democrats’ best chance to thwart Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda lies with its candidates running for the state Cabinet seats. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Oct. 28, 2022|Updated Oct. 30, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — When Democrat Naomi Blemur announced earlier this month that Hurricane Ian was forcing her to suspend her campaign for Florida’s agriculture commissioner, the response from some in her own party was harsh.

“I was unaware she had a campaign,” tweeted Democratic strategist Steve Schale.

“Same,” responded Democratic state Rep. Allison Tant of Tallahassee.

Aside from the unlikely scenario of Charlie Crist beating him in the governor’s race, Democrats’ best chance to thwart Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda lies with its candidates running for the state Cabinet seats: attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.

But the Democrats running for the seats are struggling. Fundraising has been anemic. Their Republican opponents, two of whom are incumbents, have millions more dollars.

And despite DeSantis’ national profile, the three Democrats have received little support from the state party or national donors — the latest sign of Florida’s slide from a swing state to a GOP stronghold.

“The Cabinet is always going to be fighting for oxygen,” said Nikki Fried, the outgoing Democratic agriculture commissioner. Sensing their struggle, she set up a text chain with the three Democratic candidates after the primary election in August to lend them advice and support on running a statewide campaign.

“There has been a conscious decision ... not to put the resources in the Cabinet races,” Fried said. “It’s really hard out here, and if you’re not getting the support from your party leadership, it’s really lonely.”

Related: Florida Republicans cut further into Democratic support among Hispanics

Collectively, the Democrats’ three candidates face an incredible fundraising disadvantage: less than $100,000 in cash on hand compared to their Republican opponents’ more than $20 million combined.

That’s despite the seats being more important to Democrats than perhaps any time since 1998, when Republicans began their takeover of state government.

DeSantis has pushed the boundaries of his office over the last four years, and the Cabinet seats could have checked some of his initiatives.

When DeSantis flew 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, the $615,000 cost could have been blocked by a Democratic chief financial officer. Instead, despite concerns the flights didn’t comply with state law, the payment was cleared by Republican CFO Jimmy Patronis. (The state has since spent an additional $950,000.)

When the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a 15-week abortion ban this year that went against Florida Supreme Court precedent, a Democratic attorney general could have refused to support it. Instead, Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody urged the court to overturn that precedent.

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And the three Cabinet seats have other advantages, such as a vote over who DeSantis chooses to lead the state police — which recently carried out the controversial arrests of 20 people for alleged voter fraud — and a public platform to challenge the governor when the Cabinet meets a handful of times each year.

“The most powerful thing that is missing is elevating the importance of these positions,” Aramis Ayala, the Democrats’ nominee to challenge Moody, said of her campaign.

Aramis Ayala, 2022 Democratic nominee for Florida attorney general.
Aramis Ayala, 2022 Democratic nominee for Florida attorney general. [ handout ]

If elected, she said she would immediately launch an investigation into DeSantis’ new Office of Election Crimes and Security.

Ayala in 2016 became Florida’s first Black state attorney, representing Orange and Osceola counties, thanks in part to liberal billionaire George Soros spending $1.4 million attacking her opponent.

In her run for attorney general, however, that support hasn’t materialized. She has less than $60,000 in cash on hand. The Democratic Attorneys General Association, dedicated to supporting and electing Democrats across the nation, hasn’t endorsed her.

The state party hasn’t been much help, either, she said.

“This has not been the best cycle for the state of Florida,” Ayala said.

Former state Rep. Adam Hattersley, who is running against Patronis as CFO, said he would not have cleared the payment for the migrant flights.

Adam Hattersley, who is running for Florida chief financial officer.
Adam Hattersley, who is running for Florida chief financial officer. [ Courtesy Adam Hattersley campaign ]

Hattersley, a former Navy nuclear submarine officer who earned a bronze star in the Iraq War, won a state House seat in 2018 previously held by a Republican. He said he decided to run for CFO only after no one else stepped up.

He said he has a winning message in red and blue counties: He wants to do a deep investigation into the struggling homeowners insurance industry, something that hasn’t been done. The CFO is supposed to investigate insurance companies that go insolvent and also chooses the state’s Insurance Consumer Advocate.

Getting that message out has been difficult. Patronis, like Moody, has declined to participate in debates.

“It does not feel like an election,” Hattersley said. “Nobody seems to focus on it. Nobody seems to know what’s going on.”

Blemur, a first-time candidate from Miami-Dade County, did not respond to requests for comment. On Friday, she said on her campaign website that she was being “discriminated against by leaders and independent organizations within my own party.” (During the primary, some Democrats withdrew their endorsements after her past Facebook posts calling abortion a “sin” resurfaced.)

Naomi Blemur, 2022 candidate for Florida agriculture commissioner.
Naomi Blemur, 2022 candidate for Florida agriculture commissioner. [ handout ]

Florida is an expensive investment for Democratic party committees and organizations, requiring them to spend millions of dollars to make a difference, said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist based in Virginia. The state is large and, with three of the top 20 media markets, requires significant spending on television.

“There’s so many things that are capturing grassroots attention right now,” he said.

And for down-ballot races such as CFO, it can be difficult to convince someone in California, for example, to write a big check instead of sending it directly to DeSantis’ opponent, he said.

In Florida, Democrats are fighting a 20-year trend of failures that culminated this year with Republicans overtaking them in voter registration for the first time in modern history.

Florida Democratic Party Chairperson Manny Diaz, the former Miami mayor, said the practical problems with the Cabinet seats have been made worse this year. Despite their importance, few voters know the positions exist or what they do, and national donors have not shown up in Florida this year, he said.

When told that Ayala feels the state party hasn’t given her enough support, he noted that the party has issued 400,000 robocalls for Cabinet candidates alone. For the first time in the party’s history, it spent $2 million on a coordinated campaign that included knocking on doors and other outreach, he said, which the candidates will benefit from.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘You’re not doing enough for Cabinet candidates,’ and it’s like, really?” Diaz said. “I don’t know what else (Ayala) expects the party to do for her.”

Democrats nationally have faced internal criticism for focusing on high-profile national races instead of races that affect voting rights and other critical issues.

In January, James Carville, former President Bill Clinton’s chief strategist, told Vox that Democrats were “addicted to hopeless causes,” such as raising $100 million to try to defeat South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, while Republicans were raising money in attorney general races and other lesser-known seats.

Diaz echoed that sentiment.

“Frankly, the Republicans have been very smart about that. They have realized that these positions matter,” he said. “The Democrats’ focus, too often, has been, ‘Let’s elect a U.S. senator, or try to control Congress. Forget all these state offices.’”

McClatchyDC reporter Alex Roarty contributed to this report.

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