Florida Democrats, eyeing key 2024 seats, struggle so far to recruit challengers

One focus for Democratic leaders: winning enough state House seats to end the GOP’s legislative supermajority.
Gerard Porebski displays his “I Voted” sticker after casting his ballot at Precinct #33 at the Gulf Harbors Civic Association on Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022, in New Port Richey.
Gerard Porebski displays his “I Voted” sticker after casting his ballot at Precinct #33 at the Gulf Harbors Civic Association on Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022, in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 2

Florida Democratic leaders have talked a big game about going all out in 2024, winning back seats and being competitive with Gov. Ron DeSantis not on the ballot.

But almost one year out, it’s not yet clear whether the party is recruiting enough viable candidates in both winnable and longshot districts, as well as raising enough money from donors.

In the purple state House districts surrounding Orlando, which lean Democratic on paper but were all won by Republicans last year, there were still no filed Democratic candidates in districts held by freshmen GOP state Reps. Doug Bankson and Carolina Amesty.

There also is just one Democrat filed to run in Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Mills’ congressional seat in Seminole and Volusia counties, and so far former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is the biggest name in the race to take on the deep-pocketed Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.

“There are going to be several seats that we might look at on paper and say, ‘Wait a minute, why aren’t the Democrats really contending for this specific seat in Orange County or this specific seat Seminole?’” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic elections analyst.

“But one of the big issues for Democrats is they’re only going to have so much money,” he said. “It’s going to be a fraction of a fraction of what the Republicans have. And they’re going to have to make decisions.”

Democratic leaders say there is plenty of time to find quality candidates to achieve their primary goal: winning enough state House seats to end the GOP’s legislative supermajority, which makes it much more difficult for Democrats to slow or stop the Republican agenda.

“Our job is to flip six,” said Drew Shannon, executive director of Florida House Victory, the Democrats’ legislative campaign arm. “That eliminates a supermajority. That’s focus number one.”

Mac Stipanovich, a Tallahassee consultant and former anti-Trump Republican-turned-Democrat, said the party had the right idea.

“My general feeling is that they ought to conform their goals to their resources,” Stipanovich said. “That would not be a statewide race. And it may or might not be even congressional races.”

Taking on Rick Scott

The U.S. Senate race may be the highest-profile campaign next year, but the drubbing the Democrats took in 2022 have made candidates seemingly wary.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, by more than 16 percentage points last year, a margin almost as big as DeSantis’ 19-point win over Democrat Charlie Crist in the governor’s race.

Scott, in comparison, has won all three of his races for governor and Senate by razor-thin margins, and he’s coming off a rocky year that included a widely disparaged tax plan, his party losing ground in the Senate under his leadership and a doomed bid to become minority leader.

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But his ability to self-fund with a net worth upwards of $200 million and the GOP’s statewide strength still make him the favorite for reelection, as does the growing Republican advantage in voter registration of more than 500,000 voters as of August.

“It’s going to be a tough haul next year, and a lot of things would have to go right for Democrats to be really competitive,” Isbell said.

While speculation about a Democratic candidate included names such as former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando, instead it was another former congresswoman who entered the race.

Mucarsel-Powell, who lost her bid for reelection to Congress in a close race in her Miami-Dade district in 2020, hadn’t filed fundraising numbers for the third quarter as of Thursday, while Scott’s campaign had taken in $12 million.

Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

But, Isbell said, “She at least would be a strong candidate in terms of being able to raise some money, and I would argue she’s the strongest candidate the Democrats would be able to run [without] sacrificing a safe blue seat. … It comes down to them at least having somebody with a pulse, and she does.”

It’s a similar situation in congressional seats, he said, where just having a viable candidate, even when a win is unlikely, helps raise profiles and aids down-ballot candidates.

The district held by Mills, R-New Smyrna Beach, has only a 4- to -5-point advantage for Republicans on paper. But Mills won last year by 17 points over Democrat Karen Green, who faced questions over degrees she claimed she had earned.

So far, only Allek Pastrana, a computer engineer, has filed to run as a Democrat in Mills’ district. Pastrana raised just about $6,000 to Mills’ $319,000.

Lynn Moira Dictor, chairperson of the Seminole Democrats, said she expected another candidate to enter the race soon but could not divulge details.

Ending the supermajority

The state House is where the hardest-fought battle will be in 2024.

“First and foremost, we’ve got to win those six seats to break out of a super-minority,” said Aaron Jacobs, executive director of the Florida Leadership Council, a group of former Democratic officeholders, officials and activists.

The group has already issued its first primary endorsements, including Marucci Guzmán in the special election for a vacant seat in District 35 in eastern Orange and Osceola counties and Sarah Henry in District 38 in southern Seminole County.

“These [two] districts are certainly crucial to winning those six seats,” Jacobs said.

Guzmán and former 2022 candidates Rishi Bagga and Tom Keen are running in the special election for the Democratic primary in November for District 35, left vacant when former Republican state Rep. Fred Hawkins resigned to take a college president position.

The special general election in January could be a major bellwether for whether donors across the state and the country decide to invest in the 2024 races, Jacobs said.

“Specials are tough because Republicans are going to point all of their firepower and spend tons of money on this race,” Jacobs said. “But it is winnable for Democrats. And being able to flip a Republican district in January of 2024 would certainly send a really strong message.”

Two challengers

Henry, 27, a nonprofit project manager from Altamonte Springs who lost to incumbent Republican state Rep. David Smith by less than 5 points in 2022, said she has raised about $70,000 so far in her bid to take on Smith again. Smith had raised about $60,000 as of the last filing period in June.

“Even though we’re a year out, even though we’re in between legislative sessions, we’re hearing directly from folks who know what bills were passed, who know how their legislator voted on bills,” Henry said. “People are frustrated with what’s happening in Tallahassee, and more than just being frustrated, they’re very aware of what’s happening.”

The six-week abortion ban passed this year and signed by DeSantis, which would take effect if the state Supreme Court rules against a challenge to the prior 15-week ban, has made people “furious,” Henry said.

The ban could do for Florida in 2024 what the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned abortion protections in Roe v. Wade, did for Democrats nationally in 2022, Shannon said.

“[It’ll be] a real test case of whether it’s as toxic with voters as we think it is,” Shannon said.

In District 37, which includes parts of Seminole and Orange counties, the only Democrat to have filed is Nate Douglas, a 22-year-old policy researcher and former Soil and Water Conservation District member.

The seat was held by former state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith until his defeat by GOP state Rep. Susan Plasencia last year. Douglas said he has raised about $35,000, while Plasencia had raised about $20,000 as of the last filing period in June.

“The Democratic Party recognizes, and this is something that the other party does not recognize, that there’s going to be a new generation of voters coming up,” said Douglas, whose seat would include the University of Central Florida.

Slots left to fill

Dictor called Douglas a “fantastic” candidate and praised Henry as well. But the northern Seminole district held by Republican state Rep. Rachel Plakon still had no Democratic challenger, as did the district in western Seminole and Orange held by Republican state Rep. Doug Bankson.

“We have to have all four filled,” said Dictor said. “… We know, and the Florida party actually knows, that Seminole County holds the key to flipping the supermajority so we’re not so underwater in Tallahassee. And they have made a commitment to our county to help us get these candidates to the finish line.”

On the Orange County side, county party chairperson Samuel Vilchez Santiago also stressed the importance of finding a good candidate against Bankson as well as Amesty, who the Orlando Sentinel reported has left a trail of falsehoods on taxes, bills and the university she works for and has been sued by a legislative aide for alleged defamation.

“We’ve had really good conversations [with] people who have grown up in those areas, people who will bring real strengths to the Legislature, and also people who understand both the policy and the politics of what it means to run for office here in Florida in 2024,” Vilchez Santiago said.

Isbell said the Amesty seat is a juicy target, “especially after all the drama,” but a seat that includes GOP-leaning, upper-income neighborhoods such as Windermere not be the best use of Democrats’ limited funds.

“Democrats can do some television ads that just broadly promote Democrats, and can hit multiple districts at once,” Isbell said. “But some seats are just better opportunities than others.”

Stipanovich said regaining lost ground will be long and difficult for the party.

“They’re going to pull a rabbit out of a hat here,” Stipanovich said. “The Republicans didn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat. It took a couple of decades. … It’s going to be a long, hard slog.”

The Republican Party of Florida did not respond to a request for comment.