Florida Senate: A Cloudy Forecast for Democrats

by Erin Covey April 4, 2023 · 2:30 PM EDT

Rick Scott has never won an election by more than 1.2 points, but Florida’s rapid shift rightward has left Democrats in a dismal position to challenge the Republican senator as he prepares for his 2024 re-election campaign.

The GOP has been gaining ground in the Sunshine State for the past decade, an effort that culminated on election night last November when Gov. Ron DeSantis defeated former Gov. Charlie Crist by nearly 20 points. And Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Florida since Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson was elected to his third term in 2012 — also the last year a Democratic presidential candidate won the state.

Florida Democrats insist that with the right candidate, the Senate race could become more competitive than it looks right now, coming off such a brutal election cycle for the party. But they’re also well aware that defeating Scott, a polarizing figure who’s made enemies in both parties, would take a level of national investment that Florida isn’t likely to receive in 2024.

Though Scott might be the GOP’s most vulnerable senator on the ballot next year (Ted Cruz is also in the running), a host of Democratic senators across other purple and red states are facing competitive elections. As the national party prioritizes defending its incumbents, Florida’s Democratic nominee might be on their own.

The Potential Democratic Field
One of the most prominent Democrats actively considering a campaign is former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who represented a congressional district largely based in Miami-Dade County before she lost her re-election bid to Republican Carlos Giménez. 

Republican gains in South Florida over the past several years have been particularly dramatic — DeSantis won Miami-Dade County by 11 points last November after Joe Biden won it by 7 points in 2020 and Hillary Clinton won it by 29 points in 2016. A candidate from this region of the state like the former congresswoman could have the ability to win back Latino voters in South Florida who’ve abandoned the Democratic Party. Mucarsel-Powell ran 2 points ahead of Biden in 2020.

Mucarsel-Powell, the first South American-born immigrant elected to Congress, immigrated from Ecuador with her family as a 14-year-old. She worked at Florida International University as an administrator for over a decade and volunteered with John Kerry and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns before making her own foray into politics in 2016, when she unsuccessfully challenged a Republican state senator. 

The following year, Mucarsel-Powell announced her challenge to moderate Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. She defeated Curbelo by less than 2 points after a hotly-contested race. But South Florida swung toward Republicans in 2020, and the congresswoman lost to Giménez, then the mayor of Miami-Dade County, after serving for just one term.

Mucarsel-Powell, 52, now works as a senior adviser for Giffords, the gun violence prevention organization. 

Another former congresswoman, Stephanie Murphy, could run as well. The 44-year-old had seriously considered running against GOP Sen. Marco Rubio last cycle, but decided not to run after her colleague Rep. Val Demings launched a campaign.

Murphy, 44, was first elected to Congress in 2016, flipping a district based in the Orlando suburbs that had been held by Republican Rep. John Mica for 12 terms.

After serving in Congress for six years and developing a reputation as a centrist lawmaker unafraid of criticizing her party, Murphy decided to retire in 2022 to spend more time with her family (her purple seat had also become Republican after redistricting).

Since leaving Congress, Murphy has stayed out of the spotlight. But the Vietnamese immigrant hasn’t ruled out a return to Washington.

“Florida is not dark red,” she told the Orlando Sentinel last December. “It can be a purple and blue state with the right candidates and with the right field strategy.”

No one in Florida’s current congressional delegation appears interested in attempting to make the jump to the Senate. All but two Florida Democrats—Reps. Darren Soto and Jared Moskowitz—represent comfortably Democratic districts, and aren’t likely to give up their safe seats. Two members, Reps. Frederica Wilson and Lois Frankel, have explicitly ruled out bids.

A number of Democrats in local and state-level offices have been floated as potential candidates, including state Sen. Shevrin Jones, state Rep. Anna Eskamani, former Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Jones, the first openly-gay person elected to Florida’s state legislature, is seen as a rising star in the state’s Democratic Party. The former public school teacher has been a vocal critic of DeSantis’ policies restricting the way racial and LGBTQ issues are taught in the state’s schools. Jones, 39, has served in the state Legislature since 2013 and represents part of Miami-Dade County.

Eskamani, a 32-year-old progressive who represents Orlando in the state House, seems less likely to run, but hasn’t technically ruled out a bid. “A lot of everyday folks want me to run but right now I’m running for re-election in the House,” she told the Florida Phoenix in February. She also considered running for governor last cycle but decided to run for re-election instead.

Warren, the former state attorney, unseated a Republican incumbent in Hillsborough County in 2016 and won re-election in 2020. The state attorney was suspended by DeSantis last summer for refusing to prosecute people who broke Florida’s abortion laws, which catapulted Warren into the national spotlight.

Dyer, the mayor of Orlando, has had a much longer political career than the other Democrats floated. His 20-year tenure makes him the city’s longest-serving mayor, and he previously served in the Florida state Senate for a decade.

And former Rep. Gwen Graham, a frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018 who narrowly lost to Andrew Gillum, has also been mentioned as a potentially formidable candidate, though Democratic strategists who spoke with Inside Elections had not heard that she was actively considering a campaign. Graham is currently an assistant secretary in the Department of Education. 

Democrats can’t afford a contentious primary in 2024 — they need to devote their resources to defeating Scott. A candidate like Murphy or Mucarsel-Powell would probably have a relatively easy path to the nomination, in part because so few Democrats are interested in the challenge. “I think Florida Democrats are really uninterested in a primary,” one Democratic strategist told Inside Elections.

Republican Headwinds
The 2022 midterms cemented Florida’s political identity as a red state, though the shift had become apparent over the last few election cycles.

DeSantis defeated Crist by 19 points, and Rubio defeated Demings by 16 points, as Republicans further down the ballot running for statewide offices all won by double digits.  Meanwhile, the party’s new gerrymandered congressional map enabled them to pick up four seats in the U.S. House.

Republicans’ are less likely to win the state by the massive margins they won by this past midterm cycle — Democratic turnout lagged at 52 percent as Republican turnout reached 67 percent, the largest difference in turnout in the state’s recent history

But it’s now clear that the GOP has a marked advantage in the former swing state. Registered Republicans currently outnumber registered Democrats by 437,000; the last time Scott was on the ballot in 2018, Democrats had a 264,000 voter registration advantage. And Inside Election’s Baseline metric gives Republicans a 8.8 point advantage after the 2022 elections. In comparison, the party had a 4.5 point advantage in 2018.

Reversing the political trends in Florida will take more than a compelling Senate candidate.

The eventual Democratic Senate nominee will have to convince Democratic donors and the national party that Florida can still be competitive — as Florida Democrats counter that the state won’t be competitive unless the national party invests. 

The presidential match-up will inevitably impact this race too. If the Republican nominee implodes, Democrats’ path to knocking off Scott becomes easier. 

And the state Democratic party, which has been saddled with debt and organizational issues for the past few years, needs to be rebuilt under the new leadership of former Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Even if Florida Democrats get their dream candidate, defeating Scott will be a difficult task.