By Edward-Isaac Dovere, CNN
Biden advisers believe they can hold up what the GOP governor calls his “Florida blueprint” as a warning to the country about what would happen if DeSantis or any other Republican wins the White House in 2024 – a human embodiment, essentially, of Biden’s argument that “MAGA extremism” goes beyond Donald Trump.
And along the way, they believe the Florida governor’s record may give them a chance at the state’s 30 electoral votes.
The Biden campaign has quietly started putting campaign cash and efforts into Florida – and will decide in the coming months whether to put more – as it gauges the president’s chances of reversing the reddening of a state he lost by a wider-than-expected margin in 2020.
A dozen top Biden and Democratic officials, several of whom asked not speak by name in order to discuss internal plans, told CNN they’re raring to dig in on DeSantis’ championing of abortion restrictions, his ongoing fight with Disney stemming from the company’s opposition to what critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law, his lifting of concealed weapons permitting, his crackdown on unlawful immigration and his consistent railing over “woke” politics.
It’s an insurance policy strategy for a campaign that has so far almost exclusively focused on Biden as the alternative to Trump, who continues to lead Republican primary polls and whom DeSantis has already spent months trying to knock out of the way.
And it comes as Biden advisers push back on ongoing criticism from Florida Democrats that they flubbed their chance last year to damage DeSantis early by not investing much energy or money against him as he ran for reelection, racking up a whopping 19-point victory and tens of millions in campaign funds, likely now headed to a supportive super PAC.
“They’ve realized the outcome of their negligence. [DeSantis] now has a lot of resources that he can use,” said former Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who won a Miami-area House seat in the 2018 blue wave but lost it two years later as Trump carried the state. “You don’t want to lose your democracy? You want to stop fascism? Then do something about his reelection. We could have stopped [DeSantis] in 2022. No one did anything.”
One Biden adviser mused to CNN that while DeSantis may feel untouchable because of how right-wing Republicans have embraced his contrarian approach to navigating the Covid-19 pandemic, memories of that will have faded by next year. The adviser said DeSantis’ most controversial positions went unexamined during his easy reelection win, and the governor himself is less experienced at being attacked.
Mucarsel-Powell said she was surprised but pleased that White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon brought up Florida at a recent strategy meeting she attended. O’Malley Dillon, who was Biden’s 2020 general election campaign manager, has been cautiously raising the possibility of Biden competing for Florida in several briefings since the reelection campaign officially kicked off.
Shevrin Jones, a Florida state senator and member of the Biden campaign’s advisory board of elected officials, said he’s eager to tell the country the story of what he’s seen under DeSantis’ leadership.
“Freedom is not free in Florida. Businesses are not free in Florida. People are not free in Florida. No one is free in Florida. And it’s evidence of the policies that have gone forth,” the Democrat said.
On a national level, Jones said, “if you want to see that again, elect Ron DeSantis.”
A DeSantis spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Quiet efforts to prepare for DeSantis
Long before Biden announced his reelection campaign last month, White House aides had become practiced in toeing the legal line in slamming DeSantis’s record without explicitly calling him out as a 2024 rival.
But for months, the Democratic National Committee has had a staffer deployed in Tallahassee – the only such employee outside the first four states on the GOP’s 2024 nominating calendar – officially to boost Florida Democrats’ day-to-day responses to DeSantis but informally to monitor and compile intelligence up close.
As DeSantis has traveled the country in the run-up to his planned campaign launch this week, Democrats have been road-testing attack lines. A mobile billboard about his onetime support for Medicare and Social Security privatization trailed the governor on his trip to Iowa in March. Democratic Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist of Michigan responded to his arrival for a speech in the state last month by saying, “We will not stand for MAGA extremists like Ron DeSantis trying to impose his far-right agenda on our state,” with similar language used in South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Other digs have been more subtle. According to two people familiar with the conversations, major Biden donor and nationally known trial lawyer John Morgan quietly reached out to Trump adviser Roger Stone to urge the former president to come out against a state tort overhaul law limiting settlements and narrowing liability for negligence. On the same day he was indicted by the Manhattan district attorney, Trump attacked DeSantis for signing what he called the “worst insurance scam in the entire country, with the highest rates in the entire country. That’s Florida.”
A Trump spokesperson didn’t respond when asked about the origins of that particular attack.
The Biden orbit has been privately cheering on every stage of the ongoing Trump-DeSantis grudge match, eager to see them cut each other down.
“We’d all rather run against Trump, but we hate DeSantis just as much. So the fact that we can watch Trump devour [DeSantis] while both of them further alienate the swing voters that will decide this election makes us feel about as positive as Democrats can feel,” said one senior Democrat close to the Biden campaign.
Democrats are keeping track as those fights continue. DeSantis went to a Christian school last week to sign into law new LGBTQ restrictions that could outflank the former president on the right, while Trump slammed the governor after Disney canceled plans for an expansion that would have created 2,000 jobs.
DeSantis “needs to out-Trump Trump,” said Democratic Rep. Maxwell Frost, a 26-year-old freshman from Orlando who’s also part of the Biden advisory board. “The president won’t let him or the nation forget about the egregious attacks on democracy and personal freedoms and liberties that he has overseen in the state of Florida.”
The Biden campaign has started to spend. Cable and online ads in Florida were part of a multistate purchase shortly after the campaign kick-off. And the DNC leaned into Biden’s volunteer network to have what it says were over 130,000 contacts with voters ahead of last week’s Jacksonville runoff that saw Donna Deegan become just the second Democrat elected mayor in the past 30 years.
A person close to the Biden campaign said that Deegan’s win was encouraging because she “ran a campaign on a platform that is a lot like the one Biden ran to build his coalition – a focus on kitchen table issues, unity over division and culture wars” and that the city going Democratic after turning out strongly for DeSantis last November “sends a strong signal to folks who count Democrats out of Florida.”
Competing in Florida
Top Democratic aides have been coordinating with big donors about Biden heading to Florida on a fundraising trip before the end of June. His visit to Tampa in February, when he spoke about Social Security and Medicare, followed a day trip he made to the Miami area the week before Election Day 2022 to press the same case, which was the extent of his campaigning against DeSantis in the midterms.
But more of Biden’s time in the state as president has been spent responding to disasters – meeting with the families of victims of the Surfside condo collapse in July 2021 and then surveying the damage from Hurricane Ian last October.
Biden was with DeSantis for part of the disaster response trips, and their polite but muted approach in front of the cameras is as extensive as their relationship got. According to two people with them at each encounter, they barely interacted in private and largely kept clear of each other.
Still, Biden aides are also hoping the president will benefit in Florida not just from the contrast with Republicans, but from his own agenda: the reduction in prescription drug costs and an insulin price cap to appeal to the state’s senior population; the climate change mitigation to appeal to young people in a state that has seen significant storms; and infrastructure investments that have poured into Florida from the federal legislation.
“Because of what the president has gotten done, we have more opportunity to talk about issues that people in these states care about,” the Biden adviser said, explaining why the campaign has begun to invest money in Florida, as well as in North Carolina, the other state where it is making preliminary efforts.
DeSantis also isn’t the only Florida politician on the minds of Biden advisers. Campaigning in the midterms last year, Biden went from state to state holding up a brochure of proposals made by GOP Sen. Rick Scott while pointing out that a provision in the Republican’s plan called for a sunset on all federal legislation after five years. That, Biden said, would effectively put Social Security on the chopping block.
Scott dismissed those attacks last year. Told that the Biden campaign would likely be leaning into them again, Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline called them “lies.”
“We’re happy to have a debate with Joe Biden about his crazy spending and liberal agenda that’s caused massive inflation and continues to hurt Florida families,” Hartline said. “And we invite Joe Biden to Florida as often as his nap schedule allows to discuss his priorities.”
(In February, Scott revised his proposal to specifically exempt Social Security and Medicare from any sunset provisions.)
Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters in Florida are working to put a measure on the ballot to allow abortions up until a fetus is deemed viable and have begun to collect the nearly 900,000 signatures needed by next February. There are other hurdles the effort would need to clear, but as in other states, many involved believe this will be a huge turnout booster for Democratic voters – especially in the wake of DeSantis signing a bill banning most abortions after six weeks.
What’s happening in Florida and North Carolina, which just passed new abortion restrictions via an override of the Democratic governor’s veto, “is a reflection of what will keep happening if we don’t maintain the presidency and we don’t build on our majority in the Senate and get the House back,” the Biden adviser said.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who notched his own big reelection win last year, said the Florida elections in 2018, when DeSantis and Scott narrowly won their first terms as governor and senator, respectively, are probably more representative of where the state is politically.
“I don’t think it’s a 19-point state, although trends are positive for Republicans,” Rubio told CNN.
Florida Democrats known more for dysfunction than winning
So far, Scott doesn’t have a major Democratic opponent as he seeks a second term next year, the latest reflection of a floundering state Democratic Party.
The voter registration advantage Florida Democrats had when President Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2012 has flipped to Republicans. With the help of gerrymandering, the GOP majority in the state legislature and the congressional delegation has expanded.
“Unfortunately, the Democratic Party collapsed in 2022, but with the right resources, the right investment and the right ground game, Florida will always be in play because of the cultural diversity of the state,” said Nikki Fried, who took over as state Democratic Party chair in February after one term as Florida agriculture commissioner. Her win for that office in 2018 makes her the only Democrat to have won statewide in over a decade.
Fried has been rushing to raise money, including from Democratic megadonor Donald Sussman, but multiple Florida Democrats pointed to Scott’s lack of a clear Democratic challenger as evidence of just how much work there is to be done.
“If they want to spend a lot of money there,” Rubio said of the Biden campaign, “I think that’s good for our chances in other places.”
In 2020, much of the money spent for Biden in Florida came from billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who put $100 million into ads and organizing in the state. An adviser to the former New York City mayor told CNN that so far, there has been no outreach to Bloomberg’s operation from either the Biden campaign or the DNC.
The 2020 money, the adviser said, came from a perceived opportunity to relieve pressure on the Biden campaign and allow it to put its money elsewhere while forcing the Trump campaign to keep spending money there and have less to spend in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. There was also a fleeting belief that they could push Biden over the top in Florida – though Trump ended up carrying the state by 3 points.
“Will those conditions apply in ’24?” the adviser wrote in an email to CNN, before adding a shrug emoji.
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