Florida Democratic voters — and especially the party’s donor base — can expect to see a horde of potential presidential candidates in the Sunshine State in the year ahead.
Roughly two dozen Democrats have shown some level of interest in running for president in 2020, a teeming mass of ambition that Orlando trial lawyer and Democratic fundraiser John Morgan compared to shoppers lined up for Black Friday sales.
“It’s like Walmart right before they open the door for the Christmas discounts. You know that scene? That’s what it looks like to me,” said Morgan, who has hosted fundraisers for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the past. Morgan hasn’t committed to a 2020 candidate, but he said “a lot of them have reached out.”
Florida’s Republican and Democratic presidential primaries are scheduled for March 17, 2020. That’s several weeks after the traditional early nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada and two weeks after a round of Super Tuesday contests that will include the massive delegate troves of California and Texas.
It’s not clear whether President Donald Trump will face any serious challenge for the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side, it’s too early to tell whether Florida’s place on the calendar will make it a crucial test, an afterthought or something in between in the Democratic nominating process.
Democratic Party rules require primaries and caucuses to award delegates proportionally, making it difficult to amass an early majority in a crowded field. The Republican Party allows states with contests after mid-March to hold winner-take-all contests. Florida’s GOP primary has traditionally been winner-take-all.
“With proportional allocation, nobody’s going to have a majority of delegates by the time we get to Florida,” said longtime Tallahassee-based Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who is expected to help former Vice President Joe Biden if Biden runs. Biden’s youngest brother, Palm Beach County resident Frank Biden, recently told The Palm Beach Post he thinks Joe Biden will run.
Regardless of how the delegate math plays out, Schale and others say candidates are likely to spend significant time in Florida because of the state’s history as a fundraising source and the importance of its 29 electoral votes in the general election.
“I don’t think it really matters where Florida is in terms of timing. Florida is always going to be crucially important for whoever wants to be president,” says Palm Beach Gardens attorney Fred Cunningham, another go-to money source for Democratic candidates.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato predicted that better-financed Democratic candidates will begin building organizations in Florida this year to get a head start not only on the primary but the general election.
“You look at the electoral map, and it’s very clear that Florida could decide the election again. Neither party can take it for granted. Some Democrats are saying they have to start organizing way before the general — well, duh,” Sabato said. “If you’re one of the front-runners and you’ve got the ability to do it, you’ve got to do it. Because Florida could decide the race.”
Democratic activist Pam Keith agrees. Keith, who lost a 2018 primary for a Palm Beach-Treasure Coast congressional seat, is part of a national effort to draft former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke to run for president.
“Not only is Florida really, really big and it’s a tough nut to crack, but the Democrats have demonstrated that there’s a great deal of work to do to develop the infrastructure we need. So there’s no time to waste,” said Keith.
Florida supporters of O’Rourke are planning an Internet-linked launch of their efforts on Jan. 26, Keith said.
Supporters of Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders were planning a series of meet-ups in Florida and nationally this weekend, according to Tom Conboy of West Palm Beach, who was active in efforts to encourage Sanders to run in 2016.
Sanders is one of at least 10 senators — more than one-fifth of the Senate Democratic caucus — who have shown some interest in pursuing the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Others, alphabetically, include Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Other Democrats eyeing the race include former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Govs. Steve Bullock of Montana and Jay Inslee of Washington, former Govs. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Reps. Eric Swalwell of California and Tim Ryan of Ohio.
Former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who generated some national progressive excitement while narrowly losing the 2018 Florida governor’s race to Republican Ron DeSantis, has not ruled out running.
Many of the potential 2020 Democratic candidates visited Florida in 2018 to campaign for Gillum or former Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and introduce themselves to Sunshine State voters in the process.
Morgan said any Democrat thinking about running needs to start paying attention to Florida.
“The showing here is so important for the general election. You’ve got to treat it almost like a pre-general to get ready for that,” Morgan said. While unsure who he will end up supporting, Morgan said the large number of potential Democratic candidates is a good sign for the party.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Morgan said. “And it just shows you how vulnerable they believe Donald Trump is.”