Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 1.14.24

Fentrice Driskell brought home a big win for House Democrats, while Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign is on life support.

With Tom Keen’s win in House District 35 this week (more on that later), it’s time to ask the question: Do Democrats have a shot at shocking the world in Florida next November?

Well, it depends on what their expectations are.

Statewide Republicans won by about 20 points in 2022. If the goal is to simply improve on that margin, it seems all but certain that Democrats will. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ standing is greatly diminished thanks to his disaster of a presidential run. And Democrats have consistently closed the margins from elections past in HD 35 and House District 118, not to mention winning the Jacksonville mayoral race.

Of course, Democrats are hoping for much more than that. They want to continue chipping away at GOP supermajorities in both chambers and begin threatening their majorities. That will almost certainly take multiple cycles. But Democrats are hoping this year gives indications that their fortunes are changing. Cutting that 20-point margin to, say, 6-8 points, could help.

Well, a new Associated Industries of Florida survey shows that margin is in reach. Among other findings, the poll put Republicans at a 46%-40% lead on the generic ballot.

Can Democrats do better than that and actually get close to delivering the state for Joe Biden (or a surprise alternate Democratic candidate)?

We’re less optimistic that could happen. Yes, Democrats are seeing positive trends in recent elections, both in Florida and nationwide. Democrats also could get a boost if a proposed ballot initiative guaranteeing abortion rights makes it onto the ballot.

But is it really possible that Florida is still a true swing state if Republicans won high-profile statewide races just two years ago by 20 points? Not likely.

The flip side is also true. Florida is not a permanent +20 Republican state either. Instead, the GOP rode some favorable trends last cycle, some of which no longer apply (DeSantis’ unshakable popularity) or are being countered (the ongoing post-Roe abortion battle).

Instead, Republicans likely have a high-single-digit advantage. But that’s a playing field that Democrats could perform well enough on if they can make a strong showing.

Now, it’s on to our weekly game of winners and losers.


Honorable mention: Kathleen Passidomo. Passidomo’s primary legislative package this Session has moved out of the Senate after colleagues approved her “Live Healthy” proposal this week.

The bill aims to address pain points in the state’s health care system by pushing Medicaid rate increases; pumping millions in to help colleges and universities train more medical, nursing and dental students; and offering loans to open more clinics, among other items.

“I can tell you, this is the most innovative, creative, impactful health care bill I have ever seen,” Sen. Gayle Harrell said.

“It is one of the highlights of my legislative career to shepherd this legislation,” added Sen. Colleen Burton.

Every Democrat in the chamber also voted “yes” on the package, leading to a unanimous vote. Major credit goes to Ally Cleary in Senate President Passidomo’s Office, who was the key staff person in working to pass the Live Healthy package.

Yes, there are still some hurdles to clear in the House for the package to get final approval. The biggest one: spending. The House version currently has far less funding allocated for the legislation’s goals.

But this is Passidomo’s baby, and with Republicans holding supermajorities in each chamber, it’s likely any conflicts will be resolved one way or another.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Wilton Simpson. Simpson had one hit after another this week, flexing his role in the Cabinet, seeing a measure move through the Legislature and kicking in major cash to help in 2024.

Simpson helped launch a $112 million loan program Tuesday, which had been authorized by lawmakers during Special Session. The money will help farmers impacted by Hurricane Idalia recover from damage. While the storm hit a less populated region of the state, it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to Florida farmland.

The same day, Simpson saw the Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously advance a bill to help increase availability of housing for seasonal farm workers. The Agriculture Commission earned a shoutout from the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association.

The group thanked him, along with state Sen. Jay Collins and state Rep. Kaylee Tuck, who are sponsoring the legislation, “for pursuing solutions that will help us expand housing options and ensure we have the workforce we need to continue growing plants and trees.”

Simpson followed those policy wins with a $100,000 contribution to the Republican Party of Florida to help the organization under new Chair Evan Power in a critical election year.

“Florida is a red state because we have put in the work consistently to ensure conservative leaders who deliver results are supported. With Evan’s leadership, I am confident the RPOF and the hardworking grassroots army will execute the fundamentals necessary to win in November, and I am eager to ensure they have the resources they need,” Simpson said.

The biggest winner: Fentrice Driskell. Driskell and the Florida House Democratic Campaign Committee (FHDCC) helped bring home a statement win for Democrats in House District 35, where she helped Keen topple Republican candidate Erika Booth.

Driskell and the House Democrats’ campaign arm weren’t the only reason Keen pulled off this win, but they were arguably the biggest.

Booth raised just over $200,000 more than Keen did, and she outspent him more than 2-to-1 leading up to the campaign’s final week ($260,000 to $104,000).

But in a rarity for such a contested election, the FHDCC heavily outspent the Republican House campaign arm, the Florida House Republican Campaign Committee. Democrats spent more than $541,000, while Republicans only put forward $207,000.

Take it from former Republican Rep. Fred Hawkins, who vacated the seat to become President of South Florida State College, triggering the Special Election.

“The massive amount of money spent was even shocking to me,” Hawkins said. “The Democrats never threw the amount of money at me that they did for this election. I think they saw a chance with just one election going on to raise money and dedicate it to this.”

Yes, others are responsible for the win here. Keen himself barely emerged from a Democratic Primary, and ran a smart and dedicated campaign in the General. Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried also came through to deliver another big win for Democrats. And Booth puzzlingly focused her campaign on attacking Joe Biden and on federal issues, which she would have had no control over as a member of the state Legislature.

And let’s not forget DeSantis, who urged Hawkins to take the position in the first place, set this all in motion before pulling major Republican muscle out of the state this week to help him trudge toward a narrow second-place finish in Iowa.

But Driskell and House Democrats deserve the spotlight here for stepping up and making sure Keen got over the finish line. Democrats have a ways to go before either chamber is near even. But every win counts, and Driskell made sure to get the “W” here.


Dishonorable mention: Open carry advocates. Fewer than two weeks into Session, it appears open carry advocates’ dreams are already dead.

House Speaker Paul Renner spoke out this past week, pouring cold water on the idea that an open carry bill will pass the Legislature this year.

“I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment across the board in many aspects,” Renner said. “There’s not an appetite in both chambers to get that done.”

Those on the far right have been lobbying for Floridians to be able to carry weapons out in the open for years. Last year, as Republicans passed a measure allowing individuals to concealed carry without a license, some conservatives remained unhappy, arguing the legislation did not go far enough.

That tension remains, and hardcore conservative will likely be unhappy with the latest news, with plenty of “RINO” epithets sure to be bandied about online. But maybe repeatedly insulting the very lawmakers you need to pass the bill wasn’t the best angle here. So these open carry backers will once again be left empty-handed.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Jeff Roe. After overseeing the catastrophe that was Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis’ presidential campaign, Roe was surely ready for a rebound to prove he still has the juice to deliver wins for Republicans.

Well, that goal just hit a major road block, as the Donald Trump camp is reportedly seeking to blacklist Roe and his firm, Axiom Strategies.

According to Daniel Lippman of POLITICO, the Trump team is telling Republicans not to hire Roe as retribution for his decision to work with DeSantis, a Trump rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

“It’s an open secret that candidates who want to stay on President Trump’s good side should not hire Axiom,” said one anonymous person familiar with conversations regarding Roe, according to POLITICO.

“They are enemy No. 1.”

So much for Trump wanting to “come together” after Iowa.

It’s bad enough that Roe was handed a pile of cash and the most popular Republican Governor in the country and managed to help drive his candidacy into the ground before voting even started. That ignominy could have ended with Roe’s resignation as Never Back Down’s chief strategist in December.

But Trump is intent on making sure Roe’s shaming continues. Maybe a Republican not interested in getting in Trump’s good graces will take a flier on Roe. But if we are about to enter a second Trump era, those pickings are going to be slim.

The biggest loser: DeSantis. We wrote last week that anything less than a close second-place finish for DeSantis in Iowa would lead to significant questions about his campaign going forward. DeSantis very much did not reach that bar.

There were some reasonable critiques of the media making calls that Trump won the contest while caucusing was still ongoing. But if we’re being honest, that, at most, had an impact on the margins, enough to possibly affect the number of delegates allocated, but not anywhere near enough to make up DeSantis’ 30-point deficit to Trump.

DeSantis had the backing of Iowa’s Governor and influential evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, visited all 99 counties, brought a force of state employees and legislators to Iowa to speak on his behalf at caucuses, and yet he beat third-place Nikki Haley by a mere 2 points while Trump secured a majority.

We hate to break it to you, Governor, but it’s not getting any better from here.

Leading into caucus night, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio joined his colleague, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, in shivving their home-state Governor and endorsing Trump. Coming out of the caucus, Never Back Down began laying off staff. Now, reporting shows DeSantis is setting the stage for a 2028 run, acknowledgement enough that DeSantis sees the writing on the wall this cycle, even if he won’t say it publicly.

But we all know.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


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