Democratic donors hope to recruit NBA legends Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade to run for Senate in Florida

Hill and Wade are unlikely to run, but some party operatives see their star power as key to defeating Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.

Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade.NBC News / Getty Images

NBA legends Dwyane Wade and Grant Hill have rocketed to the top of the recruitment lists for some Florida Democrats looking for a strong candidate to run against Sen. Rick Scott in 2024. 

There have been separate active efforts to get both to consider forays into state politics, which have not been driven by either the state or national parties, three sources familiar with the situation said.

The party operatives and donors see the need for a moonshot-type candidate to reverse the trend of Republican dominance in the state, in which most recently Gov. Ron DeSantis won re-election by a double-digit margin. Yet even they acknowledge that getting either one of them is a long shot.

“Grant Hill has great name ID. He would raise a boatload of money and is one of the smartest guys you will ever meet,” said John Morgan, an Orlando-based trial attorney and national Democratic donor, who has spoken directly with Hill about his desire for him to run. “Grant Hill would beat the s--- out of Rick Scott.”

Scott's team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It is much more likely that a more traditional candidate — such as current or former members of Congress or the state Legislature — ends up being the Democratic nominee against Scott, an incumbent and former two-term governor with the ability to self-finance. But some in the party see recruiting a candidate who is overwhelmingly known and popular in the state — and has the ability to self-fund — as an option that could help reset the political narrative.

Morgan brought up the idea of Hill’s running for the Senate over dinner Sunday night with Larry Grisolano, a partner and the CEO of the David Axelrod-founded Democratic consulting firm AKPD Message and Media, at the home of Bob Mandell, who was the Obama administration’s ambassador to Luxembourg from 2011 to 2016. Morgan said it is rooted in the idea that few other Democrats in Florida could challenge Scott and help the party regain its footing.

“That’s what Larry and I talked about — Grant Hill,” Morgan said. “I’m not sure it’s his time, but he would be great. He’s competitive. I think he sees LeBron James as a billionaire and Magic Johnson almost a billionaire, and it gets his competitive juices flowing. I am not sure he is done with business.”

Hill, who played seven seasons with the Orlando Magic and lives in the Orlando area, has not been publicly political on a regular basis. He campaigned with Hillary Clinton in Jacksonville in 2016 and has criticized former President Donald Trump over comments he made in 2019 slamming the city of Baltimore

Hill did not respond to a text message seeking comment. He and Morgan are business partners.

Democratic donor groups have openly discussed the idea of recruiting Wade, who played 13 seasons with the Miami Heat, to run for the Senate.

Beyond having star power in the state, Wade has become an outspoken advocate for transgender rights. His 15-year-old daughter, Zaya, is a transgender model and activist. Wade’s support of his daughter comes at a culture war-infused moment in time in which Republicans across the country have filed legislation taking aim at that community. Florida Republicans filed more than 15 anti-trans bills alone during the 2023 legislative session, which Wade said prompted him to leave the state.

“My family would not be accepted or feel comfortable there,” Wade said on Showtime’s “Headliners with Rachel Nichols” last month. “And so that’s one of the reasons why I do not live there.”

Democrats familiar with the effort to coax Wade into politics say he would be a “dream candidate,” if an unlikely one. 

“Dwyane Wade is a Florida legend, whose leadership past and present has a lot of folks in our state sending feelers out,” said Ray Paultre, the executive director of the Florida Alliance, a progressive donor group that plays a significant role in Florida Democratic politics. “We have seen former athletes, in both parties, bring something special to the political landscape. He hasn’t been officially approached, but he is on the list of four or five dream candidates to challenge Rick Scott.

“There are different groups talking to a diverse set of potential candidates — all of which would be great options,” Paultre added. “I won’t speak to where each of those conversations are, but I can confirm that there are organized efforts to engage everyone you’ve mentioned.”

Wade could not be reached for comment.

Democrats in Florida have not won a Senate race since the 2012 re-election of Bill Nelson, whom Scott defeated in 2018. They have not held the Governor’s Mansion or either chamber of the Legislature since the 1990s.

“Top donors and party leaders know they need different kinds of candidates with pre-existing profiles to mount statewide campaigns,” said a veteran Florida Democratic operative, who was granted anonymity to discuss candidate recruiting strategy. “There’s a short list of retired athletes and business leaders who could fit that bill, and Dwyane Wade tops that list. There are definitely conversations underway about recruiting Wade or a retired athlete like him to challenge Scott.”

Outside the star power of a duo of NBA legends, there is a growing list of current and former elected officials who populate what is seen as a more traditional shortlist.

Among the newest names on the list is that of Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins, who has been a leading Democratic counterweight in the growing school board-level culture war fights. She was vetted to be Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist’s running mate in 2016, and she was a surrogate for both Crist and Democratic Senate candidate Val Demings.

DeSantis put Jenkins on a list of 14 school board members across the state he is targeting in 2024, and she has been vocal in support of LGBTQ rights. In October, she wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about the increasing hostility school board members face as education becomes a premiere culture war issue.

“As a progressive in a red county, I expected to be a target of conservatives; I did not expect to be called a Nazi and a pedophile and to be subjected to months of threats, harassment and intimidation,” she wrote. “But school board meetings in Florida and across the country, including in Virginia, Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Tennessee, have increasingly erupted over politicized issues such as masks, bathrooms and critical race theory.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also reaching out to a handful of potential candidates, including former Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who considered a run for the Senate last year. 

Officials have contacted an intermediary but have not yet spoken to her directly, a person familiar with the discussions said. Murphy has spoken to Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried about a possible bid, the person said. 

In a telephone interview, Murphy did not rule out running for the seat but cautioned that it would be a mistake for anyone to run without “some reassurances” of full support from the national party for a serious campaign. Some Democrats were disappointed by the level of assistance provided to Demings, then a House member, in her failed Senate campaign last year.

“It would be foolish for anybody to be the sacrificial lamb. They are trying to recruit here, but there is a big difference between a recruitment win for Chuck Schumer and a real effort to win the state or at least rebuild the state,” Murphy said, referring to the Senate majority leader.

DSCC officials declined to discuss the specifics of their recruitment efforts. But Democrats in Washington are eager to put Scott on defense as Republicans seek to flip Democratic-held seats in other states.

“Everything Rick Scott has done while he was trying to make a name for himself in Washington has made him more vulnerable back in Florida,” DSCC Communications Director David Bergstein said. “His agenda to cut — and to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare — is toxic with the voters that decide a general election in a state like Florida.”

Another potential candidate is state Sen. Shev Jones, D-Miami, who is well liked in the party. He said he is trying to recover “from a brutal legislative session” but did not rule out a run. 

“In the coming months I will sit down with my family, my political team and some trusted community stakeholders to evaluate how I can best serve Floridians, whether that be in the Florida Senate or elsewhere,” he said.

Others considering bids include former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel- Powell of Miami, who now works for Giffords, the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who survived a gunshot wound to the head in an assassination attempt in 2011. She said that people have asked her to run but that there is “a lot to consider.”

“Right now I am focusing primarily on working throughout the state and the country to reduce the gun violence crisis we are facing," she said.

The name of one person who is likely to pass on a run is Andrew Warren, the former Tampa-area state attorney who gained national notoriety last year when DeSantis suspended him in large part over a pledge he signed not to enforce Florida’s 15-week abortion ban. Warren has challenged his suspension in court.

“I am honored that people see me as the right leader to represent our great state in the U.S. Senate, but right now my focus is on fighting back against the attacks on our freedoms and values from DeSantis and the radical right and being reinstated to the job I was elected to do,” he said.