May 24, 2024

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — On the first day of early voting in Broward County, Florida’s Democratic mecca, Jared Brown, a 41-year-old lawyer who until recently had never attended a Democratic Party meeting, drove to the polls in suburban Hollywood, slipped on a party T-shirt and grabbed a clipboard to go knock on voters’ doors.

He was motivated by anger.

Anger at Republicans in general — for appointing conservative judges, redirecting money from public schools and governing in a way that struck him as “authoritarian” — and anger at one Republican in particular: Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose polarizing persona has come to suck up all of the state’s political oxygen.

“It’s too offensive,” Mr. Brown said of the culture wars stoked by the governor and state lawmakers. “If you don’t fight them now,” he added, “it’s just not going to get any better.”

Going into Tuesday’s primary election, Florida Democrats like Mr. Brown are angry, especially at the ascendant Mr. DeSantis and the way he seems to them to act like someone who already has his eye on the White House. But it is not clear that in the choices they have to challenge him — Representative Charlie Crist, who served as governor from 2007 to 2011, and Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner — they have someone who can beat him.

“DeSantis is running for president,” said Ann Ralston, 69, as she prepared for a long, sweaty day volunteering for no fewer than seven down-ballot Democratic candidates, whose logos she had pinned on her clothes, turning herself into a human billboard. “It’s a foregone conclusion,” she said.

Ms. Fried and Mr. Crist have each cast themselves as the more viable alternative and the truer Democrat, but each is defined as much by their perceived limitations as their strengths: Mr. Crist for already losing two statewide races, and Ms. Fried for her short time in public life.

To win, Democrats are fighting history as well as themselves. After four election cycles of close losses, the national donors whom they need to help finance expensive statewide campaigns appear unengaged this time. So do some voters.

“It’s an emotional narrative about Florida,” said Andrea Cristina Mercado, the executive director of Florida Rising, a racial justice organization. “‘Florida has broken my heart too many times.’”

Money usually flows into the state after the primary. But this year, she worries that Florida is not even on some donors’ radar.

“The right wing says every chance they can that ‘Florida is red, Florida is red,’ and it seems that Democrats are buying into that,” she said, noting that people who live in the state know it feels more closely divided than it looks.

“We don’t want DeSantis to just walk into the White House,” she added. “We’re trying to do what needs to be done with Scotch tape and paper clips.”

Whether Democrats nominate the more disciplined happy warrior Mr. Crist or the more unpredictable, feisty Ms. Fried might matter less than the state party’s longstanding problems. The failings have been clear for years — a thin candidate bench, weak party infrastructure, undisciplined messaging, mounting losses with Latinos — but leaders have struggled with how to address them. Last year, the number of active voters registered as Republicans surpassed Democrats for the first time in history, and the G.O.P. edge has only continued to grow.

Manny Diaz, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said in an interview that since taking over in 2021, he had built an internal voter database, trained volunteers and created a detailed county-level campaign plan. Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, who is friendly with Mr. Diaz, recently gave the party $1 million, which is far less than the tens of millions Mr. Bloomberg spent in Florida two years ago.

“I’m confident that we will get funding,” Mr. Diaz said.

In 2018, Mr. DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum, who would have become Florida’s first Black governor, by about 32,000 votes — less than half a percentage point — making the state a rare bright spot for Republicans. Some Democrats concluded that they would have won with a more moderate candidate, a hypothesis that Mr. Crist would now test. Others insisted that they only came as close as they did because of the excitement surrounding Mr. Gillum. Ms. Fried would be Florida’s first female governor.

For now, Democrats’ most buzzy statewide candidate is Val B. Demings, the Orlando congresswoman challenging Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican. Ms. Demings and Mr. Rubio have already attacked each other in ads, and recent Democratic polls have shown the race to be close, though Mr. Rubio is still considered the favorite.

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Mr. DeSantis, whose contrarian coronavirus policies drew scorn from public health experts but propelled him to national political stardom, seemed unbeatable a year ago, with a job approval rating near 60 percent. He amassed more than $130 million in campaign cash, an astonishing amount more than 10 times as great as either of his potential rivals.

But living in Florida has become less and less affordable. And a hard-right legislative agenda of stoking cultural issues has restricted abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, banned instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in some elementary school grades and revoked a special tax arrangement for Disney after the company had a political spat with the governor.

Such strident policies, coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court decision that eliminated federal abortion rights, have resonated with enough Floridians that Democrats now believe there is a narrow path to beat Mr. DeSantis, whose job approval has dropped to about 50 percent.

Enter Ms. Fried, 44, the only Democrat elected to statewide office since 2018, and Mr. Crist, 66, who was elected governor in 2006 as a Republican and has since lost a Senate race as an independent (to Mr. Rubio in 2010) and a governor’s race as a Democrat (to Rick Scott in 2014). Ms. Fried says the 2014 loss makes Mr. Crist vulnerable to being defeated again using the same G.O.P. playbook. He has represented the St. Petersburg area in Congress since 2017.

Mr. Crist, who is the better known of the two, has raised more money than Ms. Fried, garnered more endorsements and concentrated mainly on attacking Mr. DeSantis. But he has mailed campaign fliers calling Ms. Fried, a former lobbyist, a “Republican lobbyist for big tobacco and insurance companies,” suggesting that the race has tightened as Ms. Fried has homed in on a message centered on abortion rights.

Abortion is driving the debate in Republican primaries for governor around the country, but Florida’s is one of the few states where differences over the issue have figured prominently in a Democratic primary. Mr. Crist, a former Florida attorney general, describes himself as “pro-life” but has a voting record in favor of abortion rights in Congress and has said he would sign an executive order protecting abortion rights if elected. Ms. Fried has countered that, as governor, Mr. Crist appointed conservative judges to the Florida Supreme Court who are likely to uphold the 15-week abortion ban.

“Floridians know me,” Mr. Crist said recently when asked about the issue. “They trust me.”

Mr. Crist, a glad-hander extraordinaire, had spent an hour earlier in the day at Mo’s Bagels & Deli in Aventura, northeast of Miami, where regulars noshing on roast beef sandwiches and coleslaw waved him over to get a selfie. He said little of substance and handed out bumper stickers like business cards. From his right wrist dangled yellow bracelets that read, “Practice the Golden Rule every day!”

“How’re things going?” he asked Lisa and Michael Arkin as he slid into their booth. (“DeSantis is someone I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” Mr. Arkin, 66, who is registered without a political party affiliation, said after Mr. Crist moved on.)

Later that day, at a campaign event billed as an abortion rights rally in Fort Lauderdale, Ms. Fried stood before about two dozen people and invited women to the microphone.

“We’re tired of the same old white men,” Narnike Pierre-Grant said. “We don’t need flip-floppers.”

In an interview that morning in Hollywood, Ms. Fried said she would get under Mr. DeSantis’s skin as his opponent. And she rejected the notion that Mr. Crist would succeed against Mr. DeSantis much the way President Biden succeeded nationally against former President Donald J. Trump.

“It’s not a winning equation here,” she said of that idea, emphasizing that Mr. Biden had lost in Florida. “Ron’s harder to beat. Trump is all talk. Ron has the policies in place.”

Nearby, Mr. Brown, the first-time canvasser, called Mr. Crist “opportunistic.” Ms. Ralston, the longtime volunteer, who wore a necklace with a hanger charm to symbolize the fight for abortion rights, said Ms. Fried’s chances of success were slim because the electorate could be “misogynistic.”

She had voted for Mr. Crist. He planned to vote for Ms. Fried.

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