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Florida Democrats head into the 2022 election year swimming upstream.
They recently learned that for the first time ever, Republicans have surpassed them in the number of active registered voters. Florida's Legislature and Governor's Office have been controlled by the GOP for more than two decades. And two of the top Republican contenders for president in 2024, former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, call Florida home, assuring the political spotlight on the state will continue for the foreseeable future.
This weekend in Orlando, the state's Democrats will meet in person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic to strategize 2022 and beyond.
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U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina — whose endorsement was widely seen as having catapulted Joe Biden to winning the 2020 Democratic primary — will headline the conference's speakers. Also appearing will be the top three Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and state Sen. Annette Taddeo, plus U.S. Senate candidates Val Demings and Ken Russell.
"We're in a very pivotal moment for the party," Orange County Democratic Party Chair Wes Hodge said. "We see that the voter registration numbers are concerning. We've got a lot of work to do in that arena."
With his county playing host to the popular Conservative Political Action Conference both this year and next, plus Trump's selection of Orlando as the kickoff for his 2020 reelection bid, Hodge said it's evident the national Republican Party considers Florida central to its strategy.
"Hopefully, the national Democratic Party will realize that and put the same emphasis in our state," Hodge said. "We are a very purple state and hopefully we can get that energy back in the Florida Democratic Party."
Julia Friedland, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, questions Democrats' claim of Florida being purple.
“We’re glad Democrats haven’t completely forgotten about Florida, but thankfully, Floridians are all too happy to forget about them," she said.
Florida Dems hope to 'Build Back Better'
A new Democratic leadership team, headed by state Chair Manny Diaz, a former Miami mayor, took helm early in 2021.
Jose Parra, communications adviser for the party, said Diaz has taken note of Republicans' investment in Florida and is countering.
"We now have more than 150 paid staff, which is the largest number in an off-year election cycle, and that number keeps growing," Parra said. "They are adding people to the field team as we speak."
In 2020, Democrats nationwide elected Biden, ousting Trump, and won control of the U.S. House and Senate. This month, with small numbers of Republicans joining them, they passed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan and a nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better social and climate change spending bill.
Susanne Raines, state committeewoman from Volusia County, said she and many other Democrats believe Americans will benefit from those plans, but they have been frustrated by messaging that has left Biden's approval ratings under water since the end of August.
"The thing that frustrates Democrats the most is that it seems like no matter what Democrats do to help people, they don't seem to be getting credit for it in the public's mind," Raines said. "Take the bipartisan infrastructure law that was just passed. There are tons of miles of bad roads and I think more than 400 bridges that will get fixed because Democrats passed that, and Republicans will show up holding their golden shovels despite the fact that Florida Republicans voted against it."
The Democrats' infrastructure package will also fund the modernization of ports and airports to help solve supply-chain problems, while money will also be spent on improving water systems, the power grid and improving Internet access, Raines said.
"Because of that bill, this will be the first year in the last 20 years the infrastructure in this country will grow faster than in China. Democrats did that," Raines said.
Jewel Dickson, chair of the Volusia County Democratic Party, said it's incumbent upon her party to unite and carry a simple message: "Democrats Deliver."
Dickson said she is eager to hear more from the state party about its strategy and message.
"We have to be unified in order to go forward," Dickson said. "We also have to not give up in areas that are not majority Democrat."
Republicans have opposed mask and vaccine mandates under the banner of liberty, but one freshman Democratic lawmaker, state Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, said her party needs to make the case that Floridians “have the freedom to be healthy and prosperous and safe” from COVID-19.
“I have people calling my office facing evictions, and we have a governor and administration sitting on $60 million in rental assistance funds that have come from the Biden administration,” Nixon said. “We see this governor doesn’t care about his state. He cares about making a beeline to the presidency.”
Losing the voter registration battle
Republicans have been making significant gains in voter registration in recent years, culminated by news that the GOP had overtaken Democrats in the number of active registered voters. The latest Division of Elections report shows Republicans with 5,118,357 voters, or 4,318 more than their rivals.
“This huge milestone is testament to the fact that Republicans deliver for Floridians and that voters are fed up with the Democrats’ disastrous policies," Friedland, the Republican National Committee spokeswoman, said last month.
Democrats say that's not the whole story.
"On voter registration, there has been an erosion that we have been paying attention to," Parra said. "This is not due in any way, shape or form to a Republican registration juggernaut.
"The way we arrived at these numbers is they have been moving a lot of Democrats from the active column to the inactive column. When you count inactive voters, we have a lead close to 70,000 voters."
Behind the campaign funding 8-ball
The Florida Democratic Party raised almost $3.3 million in the first three quarters of 2021, while the Republican Party of Florida pulled in more than $9.5 million during that same time.
Blue candidates, too, have struggled to keep pace.
The three leading Democratic gubernatorial contenders have raised a combined $3.1 million for their campaigns in 2021. DeSantis' political committee has generated $56.1 million in 2021 alone, not counting November or December, while it has some $62 million in cash on hand.
All the money in the world can’t win over a discontented electorate, but Republicans have successfully stuck inflation, the supply-chain crisis and increased gas prices to Biden. Democrats hope to turn the tables in Florida, where DeSantis pushed a ban on private employers mandating vaccines through a special session of the Legislature, and took steps to prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks despite the delta variant’s summer surge.
“On school masks, we had 60% support, yet we had a governor who went out of his way to punish school boards that required masks and chose safety,” Hodge said. “We have a still-broken unemployment system, and we’ve been given every opportunity to hang this on Republicans.”
Nixon and other Democratic state lawmakers have been vocal about helping people struggling to navigate that unemployment system.
“Is (the Republicans') day of reckoning in 2022? I sure hope so," Nixon said. "We’re going to highlight the failures, the massive failures, that have transpired these past few years. We hope that the voters will recognize this.”
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This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Florida Democrats attempt to recalibrate at Orlando weekend conference