TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign has quietly been building a ground operation in Florida, adding regional organizers and staffers to engage black and Hispanic voters as the team digs in for a long fight for the Democratic nomination.
She follows former Vice President Joe Biden to become only the second Democratic presidential candidate with a meaningful footprint in the state — and the two camps are mounting starkly different strategies.
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Florida might be the nation’s biggest political battleground, but it’s been of limited value to primary candidates, given its post-Super Tuesday vote in March. This cycle, though, Democrats are looking at the possibility of a drawn-out fight for the presidential nomination as the front-runners — Warren and Biden — fight for the ideological soul of the party.
Florida is in line for a front-row seat to the action. Biden owns the establishment lane, having hit the Sunshine State early and with a bang, sweeping up dozens of early endorsements and tapping into a political and fundraising network built by his former boss, President Barack Obama.
Warren, a megaphone for the party’s progressive wing, has been operating with far less fanfare, building up state and regional staff and weighing in on local issues.
“Florida again serves as a microcosm of the macro-campaign,” said Ben Pollara, an unaligned Florida Democratic consultant. “Biden is running the standard campaign blueprint, while Warren has her own, well-laid plans that she’s executing meticulously, and with the deep financial resources to back it up.”
As the field narrows — California Sen. Kamala Harris dropped out Tuesday — Warren and Biden are likely to come into more direct conflict as they jockey for position, both in Florida and nationally.
Biden, still the front-runner, this week objected to questions about an “enthusiasm gap” in Iowa and elsewhere between him and other candidates, including Warren.
“You don’t see that [enthusiasm] with Warren. Stop kidding a kidder, OK? Come on, man. Give me a break,” Biden said in Iowa on Tuesday. “And everywhere, look at the polling everywhere. Tell me — tell me where this great enthusiasm has manifested itself?”
His Florida backers share their candidate‘s swagger.
“Who has she hired? What are their names?” said Florida Rep. Joe Geller, a longtime Biden supporter, when asked about Warren’s state campaign. “I’ve been in Democratic politics for 45 years, I’ve not heard this.”
Geller gave Biden’s campaign an early Florida boost, gathering nearly two dozen elected Democratic endorsements as early as May. Beyond that, he said, the campaign has been working behind the scenes to build infrastructure, a process that includes raising money and sending national campaign staffers to spend time in the state.
Team Biden had a large presence at the Florida Democratic Party’s annual convention in October, Geller said. The event’s keynote speaker was Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a prominent Biden supporter. The campaign hosted volunteer rallies and side events.
“It was basically just the Warren campaign and us, and I thought our efforts were stronger” at the convention, Geller said. “Our events were better attended, and I think we had a stronger group of advocates,” including Coons and Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the 2018 Parkland shooting.
Even though the Biden campaign has made few in-state hires, senior adviser Cristóbal Alex and Laura Jiménez, a top national Hispanic outreach staffer and former aide to Florida Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, have spent considerable time in Florida, Geller said.
In October, Biden also hired Jackie Lee, an Orlando-based Democratic campaign veteran who worked on both Obama campaigns, as state director.
Pollara, the political consultant, said Biden likely still hold the lead in Florida but he’ll need staying power.
“Biden likely remains the prohibitive favorite in Florida, but Warren is developing the infrastructure for a drawn-out primary fight,” he said. “It’s far from clear that Biden’s campaign has the capacity for stamina into the spring.”
Biden spokesperson Kevin Munoz touted endorsements from “more than 50 Florida leaders.”
“We’re proud of our grassroots support and growing staff with reach across the state, and we will continue to grow our team ahead of Florida’s March 17 primary,” Munoz said.
Warren’s campaign started hiring in September with state Director Kimberly Diaz Scott, who previously led public policy for Planned Parenthood in Florida and was an aide to former Florida Sen. Joe Abruzzo.
The campaign has since added a statewide organizing director, regional organizers and staffers focused on black and Hispanic voters.
Tomas Alcala, former aide to Democratic Florida Sen. Bobby Powell, will be on the ground focusing on Florida’s Hispanic constituency, where Biden is vulnerable.
Vanessa Cárdenas, Biden’s most senior Latina staffer, quit the campaign in November over frustrations with its messaging on immigration and engagement with Hispanics, who make up more than 15 percent of Florida’s electorate.
Warren’s staff build-out has been made with little fanfare, an unusual approach for presidential campaigns, which typically are eager to grab headlines.
When asked about the expansion in late November, Sam Coleman, Warren’s southern communications director, said the campaign would have a staff announcement after Thanksgiving, but would not respond to questions about Florida infrastructure. He did not respond to a request for comment this week.
Warren’s Florida supporters have said her campaign’s presence has made a difference.
“There is a level of intention unlike any other campaign I’ve seen in the past,” said Dwight Bullard, political director for New Florida Majority, an independent group now backing Warren. “The campaign is responsive and being proactive to what people think have been lacking in previous campaigns.”
He pointed to Warren’s campaign statement in June, when Miami airport workers were picketing for better working conditions. In the past, a front-runner might send staff to the protest, but there would be no public statement on the event.
“Beyond being present, they did have people there who were recognized, they had already prepared a statement,” said Bullard, a former member of the Florida House and Senate. “There is a difference between being there and having something to say.”
When his group was deciding who to endorse, it reached out to the campaigns. Several Warren people in Florida got back to the group, but it didn’t hear from Biden.
“Radio silence,” Bullard said. “There is just accountability there in terms of [Warren’s campaign] being able to respond and show up in interesting ways.”
New Majority endorsed Warren on Nov. 24.