Backroom Briefing: Florida Democrats get an early start for the 2026 elections

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Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks during a press conference on May 6, 2021. Florida Channel.


By Jim Turner ©2024 The News Service of Florida; Weekly political notes from The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said this week she’s already working to recruit candidates to run in 2026, when the governor’s office and three state Cabinet seats will be up for election.

But it’s a little unclear right now who the statewide candidates might be.

The issue came up Tuesday as Fried touted the Democratic Party finding candidates to run for every congressional and legislative seat on the ballot this year.

With about 20 state House and Senate candidates on hand at an event in Tallahassee, Fried said she’s “already recruiting candidates” to compete in every race in 2026, despite mocking from Republicans.

In addition to congressional and legislative seats being on the 2026 ballot, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis won’t be able to run again for their jobs because of term limits, and Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson’s first term will end.

“As I travel the state, I’m talking to people that are either running for office or in office,” Fried said.

As for Democrats with recognizable statewide names, Fried first pointed to unsuccessful gubernatorial candidates from the past: former Congress member Gwen Graham, former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and former Gov. and Congress member Charlie Crist.

She then added “we’ve got two years,” before saying the Cabinet members, all Republicans, aren’t instantly recognized outside Tallahassee.

Several Republicans, including Patronis and Congress member Byron Donalds and Michael Waltz, have already expressed interest in running for governor, while others are repeatedly mentioned as possible candidates. That includes Moody and Simpson.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, has already opened a campaign account to run for chief financial officer.

SHOW FLORIDA THE MONEY

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison was in Tallahassee this week and said Florida is “an important component” in re-electing President Joe Biden.

But Florida hasn’t drawn national party money like states considered key battlegrounds. When asked about money coming to Florida, Harrison pointed to the Biden re-election effort working to open 12 offices in the state, with 20 staffers already on hand, as a “first stage of being in the campaign.”

“If we were not planning on investing in Florida, then you would not see these campaign offices opening, you would not see the hiring of staff,” Harrison said.

“Because, again, time and money, resources are limited, and you’re putting it in the places in which you’re going to compete. We are competing in Florida,” Harrison added.

Fried said a goal this year is erasing the Republican supermajorities in the state House and Senate. And she said she considered any race now within 7 percentage points to be in play due, in part, to a proposed constitutional amendment about abortion rights potentially swaying independents.

“We are messaging it has to transcend the Democratic platform to try to make sure that we’re talking to independents and to moderate Republicans,” Fried said.

Republican Party of Florida Chair Evan Power described the Democratic Party’s effort to fill every legislative and congressional race as creating a roster of “patsies.”

“Fried can enjoy today’s Pyrrhic victory — only for her candidates to once again face defeat this November!” Power said in a statement following Harrison’s visit.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political prognostication site from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, on Tuesday projected that Florida Democrats could produce “some marginal gains” in the Legislature.

“After reaching or matching new lows after a 2022 Republican landslide in the Sunshine State, Democrats may not have much further to fall,” columnist Louis Jacobson said in an assessment of state-level contests for the Crystal Ball. “While Donald Trump is still favored to beat Joe Biden in Florida, Democratic turnout is poised to pick up by virtue of being a presidential year, and the party is also hoping for a boost from an abortion-rights ballot measure.”

PORT LOBBYING PUSH

Florida Ports Council President and CEO Michael Rubin indicated he’ll push for the state’s seaports to get a lot more money next year from the Legislature to offset efforts by other Atlantic and Gulf coast states.

In a newsletter Tuesday, Rubin wrote that a five-year capital improvement plan for Florida’s ports exceeds $5 billion, with a priority project list of $320 million. Meanwhile, the state transportation five-year work program allocates less than $80 million to ports, with an additional $35 million set aside for debt payments.

Rubin wrote that’s not enough if Florida wants to capture global trade that moved away from West Coast ports because of supply chain issues.

“Under this funding scenario, less than 10 percent of funding will be available to meet capital improvement projects over the next five years,” Rubin wrote. “Florida’s gap of growing seaport investments threatens to evaporate its current economic successes.”

Rubin equated the current situation to where Florida was a decade ago, as the Panama Canal was being widened for larger cargo ships.

“By increasing statutory minimum investments, seaports and our partners at the Florida Department of Transportation were able to build necessary capacity projects to allow larger post-Panamax cargo ships to begin calling on Florida seaports,” Rubin wrote.

SOCIAL MEDIA POST OF THE WEEK

“It has been my highest honor to play a small part in the accomplishments of the DeSantis Administration. The team here are true winners. Florida is in good hands.” — Chris Spencer (@ChrisSpencerFL), who moved from being Gov. Ron DeSantis’s budget chief to directing the State Board of Administration, which oversees state investments.

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