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Don't call Florida a red state yet: Left-leaning groups say their voters stayed home

Lee County voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Wa-Ke Hatchee Recreation Center in Fort Myers, Fla., on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.
Rebecca Blackwell
Lee County voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Wa-Ke Hatchee Recreation Center in Fort Myers, Fla., on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.

Florida Republicans won elections up and down the ballot by staggering margins this year. Some political experts say this election could mark the end of Florida's longtime status as the biggest swing state in the country, but Democrats and third-party groups say they are not convinced Florida is officially a Republican stronghold.

They say there's a more complicated explanation for what happened in Florida during the midterms.

Dwight Bullard, a former state lawmaker and senior political adviser for a social justice advocacy group called Florida Rising, said this year's election was always going to be a tough one for Democrats. He said he and other groups who predominantly work with Black and Latino voters in Florida — key voting blocs for Democrats — were dealing with unmotivated constituencies and a well-funded and well-organized opposition.

"You know a lot of the political tailwinds had already been established," Bullard said. "If we were going to use the analogy of a track meet, folks had already started running a few meters ahead by the time large scale Democratic organization got off the ground. So, it was really going to be a game of catch up."

And they just didn't catch up, he said.

Anthony Verdugo, founder and executive director of the Christian Family Coalition Florida, said conservative mobilization efforts like his have been working hard for years. He said they really caught a lot of momentum, though, in the past year.

"The governor's office and the Republican Party focused on a very aggressive voter registration campaign," he said. "Florida has always — since its founding — been a majority Democrat registered state. December of last year we crossed the threshold."

Verdugo said his own group registered about 1,300 conservative faith voters in just a three-week period last fall. He also credits Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who he said did an effective job rallying the party's base by running on a lot of cultural issues. As a result, Verdugo said, Republicans had a more consistent and clearer message for their voters than Democrats.

"I think that combined with everything that the Republican Party did right made it lopsided and became all the difference in the world," he explained.

Incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis holds his son Mason as he celebrates winning reelection, at an election night party in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 8, 2022.
Rebecca Blackwell / AP
Incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis holds his son Mason as he celebrates winning reelection, at an election night party in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8.

DeSantis won his reelection by almost 20 percentage points. Up and down the ballot, other Republicans did almost just as well.

Joshua Karp, a Democratic strategist, said he's skeptical that this amounts to a huge political victory led by DeSantis though.

"He won about 4.1 million votes four years ago," Karp said. "He won about 4.6 million votes this time. So, he certainly increased by a few hundred thousand people the size of his coalition. In a state like Florida that's a few percentage points. What really happened is Democrats did not show up to the polls."

It's all about the money

Statewide turnout was down by more than half a million votes compared to 2018. Karp blames a lot of this lack of motivation among Democratic voters in Florida on money.

Tessa Petit, executive director of an immigrants rights group called the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said the electoral arm of her group was pleading with national donors to help them get out the vote. But she and other groups fell millions of dollars short in fundraising.

"The investment went down a lot," Petit said. "The donors pulled back because I think they kind of — I don't know maybe they lost faith in the party altogether."

Four years ago, money was flowing into Florida for groups like the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Petit said. That year, DeSantis won the governor's race by a mere .04% of the vote.

Petit said this lack of funding is why Miami Dade County in particular saw a 10 percentage point drop in turnout this year compared to the last midterm election. Because of the diversity in the state, she said, it takes a lot of money to get out the vote in communities of color. Petit said this is why national donors should not pick and choose what years to invest here if they want to see results.

"Florida is not a state that you can date," she said. "You gotta get into a you know — you gotta get into a relationship, a committed relationship with Florida."

Voting rights laws may have had an impact

In examining the results of the election, voting rights groups and Democrats in Florida say there was a toxic environment around voting this year created by Republicans.

Karp said in the past two years DeSantis signed two voting bills that went from making it harder for third party groups to register voters to "making it harder to collect the absentee ballots and drop them off for people who might have trouble accessing a polling location."

Karp said he was most concerned, though, by DeSantis' announcement earlier this year that his new election crimes unit arrested 20 people who voted in 2020. In interviews, those individuals said they thought they were allowed to vote because the state gave them a voter registration card.

Bullard said this created a "chilling effect" among some voters who, at one point, were in trouble with the law.

"What we were hearing on the ground was people who had the right to vote feeling as though, 'If I did it, it might actually get me arrested again,' " he said.

Bullard and other Democratic and left-leaning groups say none of this, though, has deterred them from continuing their work in Florida. They say they hope the 2024 election will show Democratic donors that Florida is still a state worth investing in.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.