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Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried and Val Demings speak at a Democratic event

Florida Democrats gathered for their annual pep rally Saturday in Tampa at a time when party loyalists are in desperate need of a pep talk amid a steady stream of bad news.

The messages they heard from party leaders were varied, but mostly boiled down to a simple exhortation: work hard, have faith and keep fighting because the stakes are too high.

Defeated and demoralized after a series of big losses that have made Florida look more and more like a red state, the Democrats are trying to rise and face a star national ruling incumbent governor who is looking more and more like a juggernaut. .

They know it won’t be easy to overthrow Ron DeSantis.

“DeSantis is strong enough, he’s like a monolith to contend with,” said Jay Alexander, a Democrat from St. Petersburg who is an elected fire commissioner.

Florida Democrats try to find a winning strategy, candidates

Trying to find a crack in the DeSantis monolith may be the Florida Democratic Party’s biggest concern these days. The question of how to confront DeSantis arose in caucus meetings and conversations in the hallways of the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Tampa, where grassroots activists and party leaders gathered for the annual Leadership Blue event.

Incoming House Democratic leader Fentrice Driskell said Democrats shouldn’t overthink the issue.

“I think sometimes Democrats, especially in Florida, the odds and the headwinds that we face are so great that we feel like the solutions have to be very complicated, but they’re not,” he said. Driskell, adding that Democrats just need to do more grassroots. arrange.

However, Democrats must first choose a candidate to organize themselves in the race for governor, and the two main contenders were on hand Saturday to make their case to party faithful. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Representative Charlie Crist set up booths opposite each other and worked in the same rooms throughout the day.

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They made appearances at a series of caucus meetings, introducing themselves to the party’s diverse coalition, and were due to deliver speeches at an evening gala that will also feature U.S. Senate candidate Val Demings and the Illinois Governor JB Pritzker.

Crist has raised more money than Fried, had more major supporters and, although public polls are rare, he is considered the favorite, but both had strong contingents at Saturday’s event.

Both have attacked DeSantis, with Crist telling the Hispanic Caucus that the governor is “an autocrat wanting to be a dictator” and Fried saying in an interview that DeSantis is more focused on positioning himself for a presidential race than “he’s concerned about the real people.” people of our state.

Fried also took aim at Crist’s past stances as a Republican, particularly his anti-abortion comments, and his campaign highlighted a video of Crist being booed by protesters – who targeted a conservative event across the street. street – when he tried to show solidarity with them. .

“Voting blue isn’t enough Democrats, we’re calling your bluff,” they chanted as Crist retreated to a waiting car.

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Inside the convention, Demings supporters erupted periodically chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho Marco Rubio gotta go.” The race between Demings and Rubio is the other big contest on the ballot this year, but much of the party’s focus is on DeSantis and his policies.

There were “Say Gay” signs on the walls of the conference area and attendees wore buttons with the slogan, referencing a bill passed by DeSantis targeting how sexual orientation and identity of gender are discussed in schools.

The bill has garnered national attention. Conservatives rallied to DeSantis’ side, helping to raise his profile. Another sign on the hotel wall read “teach black history,” an apparent reference to DeSantis also targeting how race is taught in schools.

The rise of Ron DeSantis

DeSantis narrowly won in 2018 by the closest margin of any gubernatorial race in Florida history, but has since built a national brand centered on these culture war issues and his COVID-19 “Free State of Justice” policies. Florida”. He is now the subject of constant buzz as a presidential candidate and has turned his fame into a massive fundraiser, with $129 million in cash available for the final months of the race.

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As he grew in prominence, the Governor also became a bigger target. Many Democrats are highly motivated to beat DeSantis, for whom they have almost Trumpian levels of visceral dislike.

Cocoa Democrat Janis Gregory said DeSantis “scares me.”

“I find him to be an incredibly dangerous person,” she said.

“Make Republicans own this failure”

The current political climate can be intimidating for Democrats. Gregory said the national headwinds Democrats are facing with issues like inflation and President Joe Biden’s low approval rating are “very frustrating.”

“But it just makes me want to spend more time,” she said.

Gregory volunteers for the Brevard County Democratic Party, which recently adopted the slogan “Democracy is worth fighting for.”

Despite the tough odds for Democrats in Florida this election season, “we will continue to fight because democracy is worth fighting for and we believe our democracy is at stake,” Gregory said.

Several speakers at a Black Caucus event warned activists that the only way to elevate the lowly status of Florida Democrats is to work harder.

“Nobody’s coming to save us,” Driskell said, adding that Democrats need to “organize our way out of there.”

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The party struggled to mount an effective ground game in 2020 at the height of COVID-19 and former President Donald Trump carried the state with ease. There was a feeling among those present on Saturday of the importance of the door-to-door campaign.

“We let social media make us lazy,” said Senator Shevrin Jones. “The base is still functioning. Knocking on doors always works.

Finding a compelling message that works for Democrats in the current political climate might be trickier.

Democrats hope the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade protecting abortion rights will galvanize voters.

The question permeated Saturday’s event. Many Democrats see it as a game changer.

Women upset over abortion rights “will turn the tide in the country,” said Riverview Democrat Kate Kampfe.

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Driskell said Democrats also needed to focus on “kitchen table issues” after allowing DeSantis to control the narrative with culture war fights.

“Tell people about the bad things that happened, but also pivot and talk about these kitchen table issues,” such as the high cost of housing and property insurance, Driskell said.

Republicans have been in charge of Florida for decades, she noted.

“Make Republicans own this failure,” she said, adding, “We can play their game too.”

Follow Herald-Tribune political editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be contacted at [email protected]