Florida’s Democrats were in chaos. Then the abortion bans came along

Florida state Democratic Party chairperson Nikki Fried is seen during her 2022 bid for governor (Getty Images)
Florida state Democratic Party chairperson Nikki Fried is seen during her 2022 bid for governor (Getty Images)

At the beginning of April, Joe Biden’s campaign manager made a bold proclamation: the state of Florida was winnable for the president in 2024.

Julie Chávez Rodríguez’s claim raised eyebrows for a few reasons: for one, the former president and Biden’s opponent, Donald Trump, is now a permanent resident of the Sunshine State. Then there’s the voter deficit – between 2020 and 2022, the number of voters registered as Democrats in Florida dropped by 331,810. Over that same period, the number of Republican voter registrations in the state increased slightly. Currently, Republicans hold an advantage among active registered voters to the tune of 892,034 registrations.

The resulting electoral drubbings were predictable. After the state chose Trump over Hillary Clinton by just over 100,000 votes in 2016, voters backed him by a margin of more than 300,000 four years later. The same trend bolstered Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor who had squeaked into office in 2018 by just over 30,000 votes: he won re-election in 2022 by a staggering margin of 1.5 million.

To put it simply: Democrats in the state of Florida, over the past four years, have dug their way into an incredible hole – and they haven’t found their way out.

Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, won re-election by 20 points in 2022 after a narrow victory four years prior (AP)
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, won re-election by 20 points in 2022 after a narrow victory four years prior (AP)

Enter 2024. The political landscape has shifted once again. Trump now faces 88 felony charges. DeSantis has slinked back to the state after an embarrassing rout in the presidential primary. And Florida’s Democratic Party finds itself under the new leadership of Nikki Fried, who has launched a “Take Back Florida” campaign – a bold effort to reverse Florida’s unmistakably reddening politics and keep it within the realm of “battleground” swing states.

Formerly the state’s commissioner of agriculture, 46-year-old Fried became chair of the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) in 2023. A year prior, she had run unsuccessfully against Charlie Crist, a former governor, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Crist went on to be smoked by DeSantis that November, losing by 20 percentage points.

The task in front of the new chair is immense. The state remains a laboratory for Trumpian conservative policy, as DeSantis pursues an agenda against longstanding corporate neighbours like Disney and welcomes new restrictions on liberal content in school libraries that advocates have described derisively as “book bans”. For years, the state has also been a destination for conservative-leaning retirees, a steady stream of new GOP voters.

Under Fried’s leadership, the FDP is not giving up quietly. Just last year, Democrats were able to win an upset in the Jacksonville mayoral race, flipping a Republican seat. But they have a long, long way to go.

There are signs, though, of clear opportunities for Democrats to take the fight to their political rivals. The most obvious example is the state’s two abortion bans – one currently in place, which bans the practice at 15 weeks, and another six-week ban, which is set to take effect soon. The state’s Supreme Court handed both sides a victory this month when it ruled that both the state’s abortion bans could remain in place, while simultaneously allowing a ballot measure aimed at rolling them back to go ahead. If activists have their way, voters will see reproductive freedom directly on the ballot this year.

The political strength of the issue is obvious. A rejection of Glenn Youngkin’s proposed 15-week ban in Virginia was credited with Democrats sweeping legislative elections in the state last year. And last week, Donald Trump signalled a clear retreat on the topic when he backed away from proposals for a national abortion ban and indicated that a near-total ban in Arizona had gone too far. Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake, running for Arizona’s open seat, joined him in doing so — even despite her past endorsement of the law.

Kari Lake, GOP US Senate candidate in Arizona, with her supporters after speaking during a rally she hosted at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport on 12 June 2023 (Getty Images)
Kari Lake, GOP US Senate candidate in Arizona, with her supporters after speaking during a rally she hosted at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport on 12 June 2023 (Getty Images)

In states across the country, similar ballot measures have ended in victories for the left. The question is now: Can the rest of Fried’s party capitalize off of this? Does it really make Florida “winnable” for Biden?

Fried sure seems to think so. “This is a new day for Florida Democrats,” she tells The Independent. “We feel that we are in the right position.”

They won’t get a chance at knocking off the governor this year, but congressional seats are up for grabs — as is the US Senate seat held by Rick Scott, who is running for a second term. Scott, having failed to oust Mitch McConnell as leader of the Senate Republican Party, is facing a much closer race than his allies would like to see. A loss in Florida would effectively evaporate the GOP’s chances of taking the Senate this fall. And Democrats argue that Biden needs a stronger Democratic majority in the upper chamber, should their party have any chance of passing legislation – including a codification of abortion rights – into law.

Senator Rick Scott, a Republican, is up for re-election in 2024. Democrats see his seat as a possible opportunity to expand their Senate majority (AP)
Senator Rick Scott, a Republican, is up for re-election in 2024. Democrats see his seat as a possible opportunity to expand their Senate majority (AP)

Fried is bullish about both her state party’s chances and the support she is seeing from officials at the DNC. The Biden campaign is staffing up across the state, having announced a leadership team for the state at the end of March. The campaign’s state director met with Fried last week to lay out issues, including reproductive rights, that will be central to the party’s plank in the state for 2024. To quote the chair, Sunshine State Democrats will be focused this year on the “three As: affordability, accountability and abortion”.

At the same time, Fried is realistic about what in many cases seem to be the party’s self-inflicted wounds.

“I have been very upfront and honest about this conversation,” she says. “The Democratic Party has not done its job in the last two decades, has not done the voter registration that has been necessary over the last few cycles, has not gone to every part of our state, [and] only concentrated on blue counties and not the rest of the demographics of our state. And when I came in as chair, I said: That is over. We are going back to the basics.”

That means campaigning in “every single county”, and making sure Democrats aren’t retreating from rural areas as the party has in countless other states.

It also means, this year, sharing the personal “horror stories” associated with bans on abortion rights and the curtailing of reproductive freedoms. The Biden campaign has made it clear that it will seek to tell deeply personal anecdotes that display the realities of conservative abortion bans and the real medical consequences some women are facing because of those policies.

A broadside was launched to that effect earlier this week with the release of a campaign ad by the Biden team highlighting the experience of a woman in Texas who suffered a devastating infection – which endangered her fertility – because doctors could not provide her with abortion care.

Expect a lot more of these stories as we get closer to November. With the six-week ban set to take effect in Florida, many women will be barred from seeking reproductive care before they even know they are pregnant.

“Yesterday he bragged about overturning Roe v Wade,” Biden’s Florida director Jasmine Burney-Clark told reporters on a press call last Tuesday. “He is proudly the person responsible for ending Roe, and ripping away health care for women across the country. Women across this state are living a nightmare and he’s celebrating.”

“These are going to be difficult and painful stories,” state Representative Anna Eskamani added during the same call. Democrats, she said, will “educate the public on what it means when you ban abortion at six weeks; what [it means] when you have a 24-hour mandatory delay”.

According to Fried, the road ahead is simple, though not necessarily easy. Democrats, she says, need to make their presence known in every corner of the state and hold Republicans to account for the flood of conservative legislation and policies that have swallowed the state.

To win the fight on reproductive rights specifically, Fried said Democrats need to not just point to how unpopular abortion bans are among the populace during the election cycle — they need to link those bans directly to the Republicans who supported them. A unified Democratic message, she says, needs to “make sure that we are making that very distinct link”.

Republicans are projecting confidence, at least in public. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican congressman and ally of Mr Trump’s, spoke to The Independent on Wednesday and argued both that America would become more opposed to abortion over time, and that his political rivals were mounting a single-issue campaign in his state. Ms Fried rejected both of those assertions on Thursday.

She went on to predict that her party would be able to win back sizable gains in 2024 with a unified message about Republican policies and the record of the incumbent president. That could be tough: Mr Biden remains underwater in Florida, with a recent Emerson College poll putting him 15 points behind his 2020 rival. His approval rating is in the 30s, while as many as six in ten voters disapprove of his job performance.

There are signs of hope, however: another March poll shows the incumbent only narrowly trailing Mr Trump among independents in the state. And of course, Mr Biden continues to lead his opponent on the financial front, something made all the more relevant by the burden presented by the ex-president’s legal battles.

“All eyes are back on Florida,” Ms Fried said on Thursday. “We think that because of all of the moments that we’re in at this time … we’re going to be able to not only be competitive but to be able to flip a lot more seats in a lot more areas than people would have expected.”

Florida continues to present a steep uphill battle for Mr Biden. But it’s quite possible that Democrats could find reasons to celebrate down-ballot even if Mr Biden can’t beat out Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. The backlash against Republicans over abortion may just be the impetus for such a resurgence.

The question for the chair and other Democrats in Florida then becomes whether they can effectively make the case for a full rejection of the Trump-DeSantis school of conservatism, and begin a real reversal of the losses their party has endured over the past six years. A key part of that will be fighting the GOP’s growing advantage among hispanic voters in the state, who now favor Mr Trump to Mr Biden by single digits.

According to Ms Fried, the party’s real advantage this year comes down to message discipline.

“We are united on our message, which Democrats historically are bad at. We are united on our message,” said Ms Fried. “We’re going across the state making sure that there’s not a single area that you’re not going to feel the presence of the Democratic Party and our candidates.”

She added to The Independent: “You know, I’m a football nerd. [If you’re going] into the fourth quarter, you know that if your team is down and you can’t change the trajectory of the fourth quarter, the momentum stays in the other direction. But if you’re able to bring that energy, and the excitement, and the renewed hope and faith, miracles happen.”