JACKSONVILLE — It wasn’t long after Rep. Val Demings took the microphone at a campaign event at a Florida union hall that she acknowledged it was perhaps a curious time for a Democrat to give up their spot in the House to try to flip a Senate seat in the country’s southernmost state.
“You may be saying: ‘Why on Earth, why would you want to run for the United States Senate now?’” Demings said to murmurs and nods from the crowd at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) hall in Jacksonville.
As of 2021, there were more registered Republicans than Democrats in Florida for the first time in at least 50 years. Donald Trump won there in 2016 and again in 2020, even as neighboring Georgia backed a Democrat, President Joe Biden, for the first time since 1996. In 2018, for the first time since the 1980s, Florida elected two senators from one party: the GOP. There is a political trifecta, with Republicans controlling the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the statehouse. But Gov. Ron DeSantis won by less than a half a point in 2018 in an election that went to a recount.
“We are living in some strange times, we’re living in some unbelievable times, we’re living in some difficult times, and we’re living in some crazy times,” Demings continued, “But I didn’t come tonight to just bring you bad news. I came tonight to bring you some good news too: I’m running for the United States Senate and, doggone it, I am going to win.”
“Why? Why is directly tied to my personal story,” Demings added.
These are the contours of Demings’ personal story: She grew up around Jacksonville. Her dad was a janitor who also picked oranges and mowed lawns. Her mother was a maid. She is the youngest of seven children and the first in the family to graduate from college. She was a social worker before joining Orlando’s police force. She made history as the city’s first woman chief of police in 2007, and violent crime dropped 40 percent during her tenure. In 2016, Demings was elected to the House of Representatives, where she serves on the Judiciary, Intelligence and Homeland Security committees. She was one of seven managers who made the case for Trump’s impeachment during the first Senate trial. Now, she is aiming to be the third Black woman ever elected to the Senate, following former Sens. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Kamala Harris of California, whose elevation to vice president left the upper chamber with none. Demings was also on Joe Biden’s VP shortlist.
“I learned to fight a long time ago,” Demings said.
A Democrat will need to be a fighter to win a statewide race in Florida this year. Midterm elections are historically challenging for the party in the White House, and Biden’s approval rating is below 40 percent. DeSantis is a popular governor with high name recognition, seen as an early front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and his presence at the top of the ballot will likely motivate the party’s base voters to turn out.
Among the states that are current or recent political battlegrounds, Florida stands out in the latest iteration of U.S. culture wars. DeSantis and the GOP-led legislature have pursued restricting abortion access, LGBTQ+ rights, voting, and the discussion of history and gender in public schools. The moves appeal to the Republican base, but Democrats are hoping that this could hurt DeSantis in November with moderate and independent voters. They’re also hoping there will be a carryover effect on Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio, who have not denounced — and at times lauded — the actions DeSantis has taken.
This is all while the Democratic agenda has largely stalled in Washington, with legislation related to voting access, policing, codifying abortion rights and other top priorities unable to get through the Senate.
But if any Democrat has a chance in Florida it is Demings, some in her party told The 19th. Though she still polls behind Rubio, the gap between them has narrowed. It is one of just three Republican Senate seats the Cook Political Report rates as leaning Republican, the second most competitive rating. DeSantis has pursued controversial bills related to the teaching of race and gender, and a 15-week abortion ban after the Supreme Court overturned 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision that could motivate Democratic voters to turn out in opposition. Plus, the ongoing House hearings related to the January 6 insurrection have lent credibility to the prior impeachment proceedings with voters already conflicted about Trump, strategists have said.
Demings raised a record $12.2 million in the second quarter, with about $13.2 million in the bank, and an average contribution around $30, according to her campaign. During the same time period, Rubio raised about $4 million, and has about $14.5 million still in the coffers. Both are the presumptive winners of their primaries, which will be held on Aug. 23.
Steve Simeonidis, a lawyer and former chair of the Democratic Party in Miami-Dade County, said Demings has “amazing name recognition because she’s been so involved, not only with her own community in Orlando, but helping out the entire state of Florida while representing us in Congress.”
Demings told the crowd at the IBEW hall that she is running so others can experience their own version of her “only in America” story, wherein the Black daughter of a maid and a janitor can ascend to police chief, then the House, now potentially the Senate.
“I am on a mission to make sure that every man, every woman, every boy, every girl, regardless of the color of their skin, where they live, how much money they have in the bank, their sexual orientation, sexual identity or religion, will have an opportunity to succeed,” she said to applause.
Demings was campaigning in Jacksonville shortly after a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion indicated that the conservative justices were poised to overturn nearly 50 years of federal abortion rights. The actual decision came the next month. The eight voters who spoke to The 19th at the IBEW event all brought up abortion access — and the Supreme Court — as a primary concern. The justices this term ended federal abortion rights and made it more difficult for states to regulate guns. They’re poised to hear a major case related to voting next term.
Verona Mitchell, 73, said she believes that concerns about the highest court would result in better-than-expected showings for Democrats in Senate races. “Democrats are going to surprise people this year — we’re going to overtake the Senate. There’s going to be an upset. Democrats are upset, but we’re quiet,” she said.
Mitchell’s friend, Gwen Coleman, also 73, agreed. She also believes that increasingly conservative cultural positions taken by DeSantis will make some of Florida’s independent or moderate voters think twice about backing Republicans up and down the ballot.
“I’m part of a powerful prayer group and we’re praying for God to touch these Republican minds,” she said.
Demings told The 19th that Democratic Senate candidates, herself included, “certainly understand the significance of the U.S. Supreme Court.” The Dobbs decision was “the first time the court has not protected a constitutional right, but chose to overturn one.”
“We are not going to tolerate it, we are not going to stand for it. … If they think that we are going away or shutting up or sitting down, or accepting this vicious attack on women’s rights, they are sadly mistaken,” she continued.
“I have three sons. I did not ask my congressman, I didn’t ask the governor, and I certainly didn’t ask my senator for permission to do that,” Demings said.
DeSantis, meanwhile, signed a 15-week abortion ban into law that took effect this month. He has also become embroiled in a spat over gender and sexuality with Walt Disney Co., the state’s largest employer with 70,000 workers in Florida. After the entertainment company’s executive criticized a DeSantis-led “Don’t Say Gay” bill that restricts elementary classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, the governor quickly signed into law a retaliatory bill that dissolves the special district in which Disney has operated with special authorities and tax breaks since 1967. The 19th has reported on how the roughly 9,000 current openings for school personnel in the state is in part due to the anti-educator rhetoric coming from the DeSantis administration.
Rubio backed DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, said Disney was lying about the legislation, accused the company of liberal activism, and has introduced federal bill that would block companies from taking a tax deduction for reimbursing employees who have to travel out of state for their child’s gender-affirming care or an abortion. Rubio was not one of the 15 Senate Republicans — including members of leadership and multiple lawmakers with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association — who voted for a moderate, bipartisan gun bill last month. He has said the Disney spat is a “state fight” and that he plans on focusing on “federal problems that matter to real people” such as gas prices. He told reporters that a marriage equality bill pending in the Senate is a “stupid waste of time.” His campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
Ione Townsend, head of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, said that she thinks DeSantis “has probably hurt himself significantly with suburban women,” ticking off “the whole Disney thing;” a bill that has allowed parents to object to books in schools that have ranged from Harry Potter to Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye”; and asking a group of middle school students at a March 2022 televised event to remove their protective masks because it was “ridiculous” to continue wearing them.
Townsend is one of many Democratic operatives who believe that women will be particularly strong candidates this year as both parties attempt to woo suburban women who may be upset with GOP stances on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
Plus, Townsend said of Demings: “She’s a law-and-order person, so I think she’ll be attractive to some of the softer Republicans, so I think she has a good chance … it all depends on voter turnout.”
In a sign that Rubio’s campaign also believes Demings’ background as a police chief likely has crossover appeal, his first campaign ad of the cycle, released last week, touts his endorsement from law enforcement officials and features one who says Demings did not “condemn radicals who wanted to abolish police.”
As of last month, Florida had 14.2 million registered voters, including roughly 5.2 million Republicans, 5 million Democrats, 256,000 affiliated with minor parties and 3.9 million independents with no party affiliation. Last year was the first time that Republican registrations outnumbered Democratic registrations in the state since at least 1972, the earliest year for which the state provides online records.
Florida is the only battleground state that Trump won by a larger margin in 2020 than in 2016. Clinton won Miami-Dade by more than 30 points in 2016; Biden carried the county by less than seven points in 2020. His performance was so poor among Latinx voters there that prominent strategists said it could be a broader warning for the party.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which supports Democrats in Senate races, said it has made clear from “day one that this will be a competitive race.”
“We’ve included Florida as part of the Defend the Majority program and know that Florida will be a competitive battleground,” according to spokesperson Amanda Sherman Baity.
The DSCC’s Defend the Majority program made an initial $30 million investment in September in nine Senate races in Florida, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The DSCC provides the candidates with field staff and offices, along with outreach advice to reach the Latinx community, AAPI voters and other critical Democratic blocs.
Demings told The 19th she would be traveling from “the Panhandle to the Keys … talking to people about things that keep them up at night.” She is talking to voters about not just the Supreme Court and abortion rights, but about issues like the economy, inflation, supply-chain holdups and housing prices, all of which GOP leaders have advised their candidates to focus on. She said her career in policing has prepared her well for the campaign trail.
It was a “nontraditional career for any woman and it was not easy to do,” Demings said.
“I am doing what a lot of candidates do not do: I’m not just going into places where it’s comfortable for me to go, like Marco Rubio does. I’m talking to Republican voters, Democratic voters and independent voters about the things that matter to them,” she said.
“I didn’t care as a law enforcement officer what your political party was. My message resonates with people throughout the state. And I’m going to continue to tell that story and not sit back and feel I’m entitled to their support.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the first Black woman elected to the Senate. She is Carol Moseley Braun.