MIAMI — Florida Democrats see a possible path to winning America’s once-foremost battleground state: Abortion and marijuana.
National Democrats had all but written off Florida as a lost cause — a former purple state turned solid red by the MAGA movement and Gov. Ron DeSantis. But key party leaders in the state, desperate to turn things around in 2024, are confident that citizen initiatives dealing with abortion rights and recreational marijuana legalization could fuel turnout and boost the party’s chances.
“It will have a transformative impact on the election,” said former state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who was swept out of office last year amid Florida’s red wave and is now running for the state Senate.
When Democrats gathered in Miami Beach this month to raise money and strategize about 2024, they were buzzing about the prospect of what such high-profile citizens initiatives could mean. Republicans, they said, could suddenly find themselves at a disadvantage.
“I think it’s a perfect storm,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried, who included in that storm the backlash against DeSantis as well as 2024 being a presidential election year where turnout is routinely higher than in midterms.
Some are skeptical that the initiatives will change the fortunes of the party. But as Democratic Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber put it, “Once you reach the bottom, the only way is up.”
Fried said that Democratic volunteers and paid canvassers will help gather signatures for the pot and abortion amendments when they go out into the field. The party does not plan to help fund either initiative, but Florida Democrats are promoting the abortion rights initiative — as well one dealing with clean water — on the party’s website.
There’s no guarantee right now that either the abortion rights or recreational marijuana initiative will make the 2024 ballot. The pot amendment, funded almost entirely by the marijuana giant Trulieve, has already gotten over 1 million signatures, more than enough to qualify. But Florida’s conservative-leaning Supreme Court still needs to approve the initiative and state Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody has asked the high court to reject the measure.
Organizers for the abortion rights initiative, which would create a constitutional amendment banning restrictions on abortion before about 24 weeks, say they have gathered more than 400,000 signatures and are on pace to reach one million in the next couple of months. If approved, it would block Florida’s current ban on abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy and this year’s six-week ban, which remains in limbo until the state Supreme Court decides on a legal challenge to the bans.
The coalition backing the abortion amendment, which includes Planned Parenthood and American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, have made substantial donations to the effort and plans to spend millions of dollars to gather enough signatures by the Feb. 1 deadline. Trulieve has already contributed more than $25 million toward the marijuana initiative.
No one doubts that Democrats face major hurdles ahead of 2024. Democrats were hammered in the last election and lost races up and down the ballot, including DeSantis’ nearly 20-point blowout victory over Charlie Crist, who campaigned on abortion rights.
A recent win by Democrat Donna Deegan in the Jacksonville’s mayor race has buoyed the party faithful, but Democrats consistently trail Republicans in fundraising — and more importantly, there are now nearly 542,000 more active registered Republicans than Democrats in the state.
The big victories by Republicans also highlighted another major problem: an enthusiasm gap that could continue to haunt Democrats as they enter the crucial presidential election. Democratic turnout in key strongholds dropped in 2022 and opened the door to Republicans flipping populous counties, such as Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, that routinely went for Democrats in past elections.
“Ron DeSantis did not win by 19 points,” Fried said. “The Florida Democrats lost by 19 points. That is on us.”
As part of the effort to turn around Democrats fortunes, Fried is aiming to use the party for voter registration efforts instead of relying on outside groups. Florida Democrats, for example, put together a youth council to target and mobilize young voters. The hope is also that the abortion and marijuana initiatives will provide an incentive for infrequent voters to turn at the polls. And even if it’s not enough to help Biden win Florida — which Trump won in 2020 — it may make a difference in down-ballot contests.
This isn’t the first time that a party used citizen initiatives to drive voter turnout. The Republican Party of Florida was one of the major donors behind a constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in the state about 15 years ago. Groups pushed the amendment even though it was already illegal under Florida law at the time. The anti-gay marriage initiative passed, with 61 percent of Florida voters approving it. But Democrat former President Barack Obama still carried the state that year over Republican John McCain.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who once worked for Planned Parenthood, is convinced the abortion rights amendment will energize young voters who are disappointed with President Joe Biden and frustrated over gun violence and the inability to cancel student loans. In other words, it will turn out Democratic voters who would otherwise stay home in protest.
The 33-year-old Eskamani said she’s seen a surge of interest from people who want to help get the abortion rights measure on the ballot, recounting how organizers gathered 1,600 petitions at a recent Paramore concert in Orlando. She said the measure will remind voters that Republicans pushed to restrict abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade last year.
“It reminds people what is at stake, it gives us a platform,” Eskamani said.
But Dan Smith, chair of the University of Florida political science department who has a lengthy record of researching ballot initiatives, is doubtful that the pot legalization amendment and the abortion rights measure will make a substantial difference in the 2024 race. He said measures like these affect races on the “margins.”
Smith said his studies have shown that initiatives are more likely to spur turnout in midterm races, not presidential elections. He noted that last year’s referendum in Kansas — where voters rejected a measure that would have allowed additional restrictions on abortion — was held during an August primary race.
“If Democrats aren’t turning out in 2024 because of the race for president, having a measure on the ballot isn’t enough to make up for that lack of enthusiasm,” said Smith, suggesting that Florida Democrats would be doomed if their turnout mirrors last year’s elections, where Republicans dominated throughout the state and even won some traditionally Democratic strongholds.
Republicans also remain skeptical that Democrats will rebound next year since the voter registration gap keeps growing.
Christian Ziegler, chair of the Republican Party of Florida, contended that measures put in place by DeSantis and the GOP — such as a law banning the instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools — will resonate with a majority of voters.
“No issue amendments, logo rebrands or other desperate attempts to put lipstick on a radical will cause Floridians to forget that Democrats are committed to an insane agenda featuring the indoctrination, sexualization and molestation of our children,” Ziegler said.
Yet Screven Watson, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and a veteran consultant and lobbyist, said that, on paper, having the two initiatives on the 2024 ballot should be a boost to the party.
“But it doesn’t work if people don’t get off the couch,” said Watson who lamented past close elections where Democrats narrowly lost. “The question is, will it work this time?”
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