The goal of the tour, Democrats shared, is to close the gap in voter registration between the Republican and Democratic parties, which has only widened since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis handily won his bid for re-election as governor last year, besting Democratic opponent Charlie Crist (a former Republican himself) by a long shot.
“[Over] the next month, we’re going to be visiting 18 counties in every corner of our state to remind voters what Democrats stand for, who we are, and who we are fighting for,” party chair Nikki Fried, sans her “Just F**king Vote” shirt, shared at a press conference in downtown Orlando.
Also in attendance at the tour launch were U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost, local State Reps. Anna Eskamani and LaVon Bracy Davis, local State Attorney Monique Worrell, and former state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who launched a 2024 bid for the state Senate earlier this year.
Democrats will be traveling to a mix of Democratic and Republican-leaning counties over the next several weeks, with plans to hit up South Florida, North Florida, loop back down the Tampa Bay region, then finish off at the state Capitol.
“Because at the end of the day, that is what we are taking back,” said Fried.
They have a lot of catch-up to do. As it stands, the Republican Party leads Democrats in voter registration by over 500,000 at this point.
But it wasn’t always this way. While Republicans have held trifecta control in Florida since 2011, Democrats have traditionally held a voter registration edge, NBC News reports.
Moreover, Floridians have also voted in favor of initiatives that Republican lawmakers wouldn’t touch with a stick, such as increasing the state minimum wage, legalizing medical marijuana, and restoring voting rights for eligible residents convicted of felony charges.
But Florida’s population has grown and shifted in recent years. So too, according to Democrats, have the political priorities of their Republican colleagues.
“We need relief from escalating homeowners’ insurance and skyrocketing rent. We need sensible gun reform, we need to protect voters’ rights,” said Rep. Bracy Davis, a first-term Democrat representing parts of Orange County.
“Instead, the Republicans have prioritized DeSantis’ political career and have focused on banning access to women’s health care, banning books, and particularly banning books about my history,” said Davis, who is Black.
While Florida’s culture wars have served as an imperfect launching pad for DeSantis in his bid for president, they’ve also stoked fear and confusion in Floridians who’ve, as a result, become little more to Republicans than political fodder.
“We are calling this ‘Free Florida,’ but the reality is we are not free,” said Worrell, who serves as State Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, covering Orange and Osceola Counties. “Freedom has been replaced with fear.”
The promised game plan, not dissimilar to those communicated in years past, is for Democrats to improve their ground game, organizing in local communities across Florida between election cycles year-round, not just when they need bodies to show up to the polls and check a box.
But this time it’s occurring under new leadership — leadership that’s not afraid to drop the odd F-bomb to make a point.
“It’s a new age,” said U.S. Rep. Frost, a former organizer and the first member of Gen-Z elected to Congress last year.
“You can't just show up when we need a vote,” said Rep. Eskamani, who successfully flipped a Republican seat in the Florida House in 2018, and who has held onto her seat since by making an effort to show up for constituents of all party affiliations.
“You need to show up to ask voters: What do you need? What can I do for you? What would a successful Florida mean to you?” she asked, to emphasize her point. “How can we address the economic disparities we’re facing alongside ensuring that no matter who you love, the color of your skin or disability status, your gender identity, who you worship, your documentation status — that you can have an equal chance to achieve the American dream?”
Former Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who lost his seat in the state House last year after redistricting shifted his district boundaries to lean more Republican, said he’s seen a sense of energy in people “that we haven’t seen in some time.”
The stakes of continuing to engage in political hand-wringing are high.
After this year’s legislative session, public educators — threatened with criminal charges for what they teach in schools and for the books they keep in their libraries — are fleeing the state. So are transgender Floridians who are unable to access evidence-based gender affirming healthcare.
The cost of housing and rising inflation has priced Floridians out of their homes, including single working parents and residents living on a fixed income. Wage growth, particularly among the state’s most underpaid workers in the tourism and service industries, has failed to keep up.
A failure of the state legislature (and federal government) to enact meaningful heat protections for outdoor workers poses an urgent threat to those workers’ health.
Democrats blame Republicans for issues affecting Floridians on the ground (think rising housing costs, not the manufactured crisis of critical race theory). Republicans blame Democrats (and socialism).
“Florida is burning. And I don't just mean because it’s hot out there,” said Smith. “But because we have a collapsing property insurance market, because Florida is the No. 1 inflation hotspot in the United States, and because we have a cratering tourism industry here in Central Florida that is a direct result of the governor and the legislature’s hateful and bigoted policies.”
Democrats’ plan to gain some actual ground ahead of the 2024 elections is to increase voter registration efforts on college campuses, as well as reach voters who aren’t registered Democrats — Independents and open-minded Republicans — to establish common ground.
“This isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans,” said Frost. “It's about the people versus the problem. It’s about decency versus right-wing extremism.”
The “Take Back Florida” tour’s launch in Orlando comes just one day after Vice President Kamala Harris visited the City Beautiful, rebuking a formal invite from DeSantis to debate new academic standards for K-12 schools that include a lesson for middle schoolers on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
It also comes ahead of a special election for House District 35, to replace outgoing Rep. Fred Hawkins (R), on Nov. 7, 2023 (primary) and Jan. 16, 2024.Subscribe to Orlando Weekly newsletters.
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