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Ron DeSantis' presidential bid is giving life to a struggling Florida Democratic Party

The Florida governor's inability to close the gap in the polls against Donald Trump has breathed new life into a party that has been stuck in the political wilderness.
Nikki Fried
Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried speaks at a news conference in Miami in 2021.Lynne Sladky / AP file

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis wasn't in Miami Beach on Saturday night, but his presence was felt.

The Florida Democratic Party held its annual Leadership Blue gala here, the party’s biggest gathering since DeSantis won re-election by nearly 20 percentage points last year — a landslide win that, in many respects, felt like the nail in the coffin for Florida Democrats and served as a launching pad for his 2024 presidential bid.

The mood that hung in the air for most of the weekend, though, was not that of a party in decline. The faltering of DeSantis’ presidential campaign — he trails Donald Trump by significant double digits in most public polling — has given a burst of energy to Democrats who desperately needed one.

The event’s keynote speaker was the actor Bradley Whitford, a Democratic activist best known for his role in the early-2000s TV show "The West Wing." Whitford spent much of his remarks hyping up a Florida Democratic Party in need of momentum and trashing DeSantis.

“Ron DeSantis is a f----- coward,” he said, a remark that got a standing ovation. “He is a f----- coward. He is afraid of history. He is afraid of people different than him. He is afraid of Donald Trump.”

"That’s right, Top Gov is a bit of a bottom,” Whitford added.

It was one of the best-received lines of the night, making fun of a DeSantis political ad called “Top Gov” that portrayed him as a fighter pilot in the vein of Tom Cruise in the movie "Top Gun."

"Little Ronnie D can play dress up and do all the homoerotic 'Top Gun' ads he wants, but no, Florida is not free,” he said.

He also reveled in the fact that DeSantis, who was in Miami on Saturday night speaking at a private event held by the county’s Republican Party, is getting beaten badly in polling against Trump.

“The more people get to know Ronnie D … the less they seem to like him,” he said.

DeSantis' campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The event’s mood belied the institutional challenges Democrats in the state still have as the 2024 election cycle starts to take shape.

For the first time in Florida political history, Republicans have overtaken Democrats’ voter registration advantage — which in the mid-2000s stood at roughly 700,000. And the state party is no longer seen as a top-tier priority by a national Democratic Party increasingly focused on states like Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona, all of which are cheaper and trending blue.

Florida Democrats also remain without a candidate to challenge Republican Sen. Rick Scott in the state’s biggest nonpresidential contest next year. The shortlist for Democratic prospects includes House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins and former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell —who was seen at the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, where the event took place, meeting with former Rep. Val Demings, who unsuccessfully ran against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio last year.

State Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried, who was elected in January, has taken pains to try to inject energy into a party that has been perceived as stagnant in recent years. The focus of much of her speech, which kicked off the gala’s main event, focused not just on rallying the troops, but also on trying to wrest from Republicans themes often seen as at home on the political right.

“Let me say this loud and clear: I am tired. I am tired that conservatives think they have a trademark on the American flag,” she said as she pointed to the half-dozen U.S. flags behind her onstage. “Well, they do not.”

She came out to the iconic Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down,” which was a theme of her speech and a close variation of Never Back Down, the name of the super PAC supporting DeSantis’ bid for president.

Fried highlighted that Democrats have started the 2024 election cycle on an unexpected wave of momentum — especially in Jacksonville, where in May Democrat Donna Deegan clinched an unexpected victory in the mayor’s race against DeSantis-backed Republican Daniel Davis.

“Winning local races is key to building the statewide infrastructure," Fried said. "We need to win again."

It was part of the theme throughout the night that, despite persistent stinging losses, Florida Democrats see a path back to relevance in what was once the nation’s largest swing state.

“We do not give up on Florida. Do not give up on Florida,” said Democratic Rep. Fredricka Wilson, standing onstage with the state's Democratic congressional delegation, which holds just eight of its 28 congressional seats. “Do not abandon Florida.”

Fried closed out her remarks by amplifying her pledge to try to reinsert the Democratic Party into conservative corners of the state that have long been Republican strongholds. She also took a shot at DeSantis’ footwear, which has gotten increasing attention on the presidential campaign trail over speculation that he uses elevated boots and shoes to make him look taller.

“What people see us doing matters. That is why you will see me crisscross our state from Pensacola to Key West showing up to places that have been forgotten by this party,” she said.

“I am not afraid to call out his bulls----,” Fried added. “He has terrible taste in shoes. … I just could not help myself.”