MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Governor Ron DeSantis was not in Miami Beach Saturday night, but his presence was felt.

The Florida Democratic Party held its annual Blue Leadership gala here, the party’s largest gathering since DeSantis won re-election by nearly 20 percentage points last year, a landslide victory that, in many ways, felt like the nail in the hole. coffin for Florida Democrats and served as the launching pad for the governor’s 2024 presidential bid.

However, the mood that hung in the air for most of the weekend was not that of a party in decline. The faltering of DeSantis’s presidential campaign—he trails Donald Trump in most public polls by significant double digits—has given a burst of energy to Democrats who desperately needed it.

The event’s keynote speaker was actor Bradley Whitford, a Democratic activist and actor best known for his role on the early 2000s television show «The West Wing.» Whitford spent much of the commentary of him promoting a Florida Democratic Party that needed momentum and criticizing DeSantis.

“Ron DeSantis is a fucking coward,” he said, a comment that received a standing ovation. “He’s a f—– coward. He is afraid of history. He is afraid of people who are different from him. He is afraid of Donald Trump ”.

«That’s right, Top Gov is a bit inferior,» Whitford added.

It was one of the best-received lines of the night, mocking a DeSantis political ad called «Top Gov» which portrayed him as a fighter pilot along the lines of Tom Cruise in the movie «Top Gun.»

«Little Ronnie D can play dress-up and do all the homoerotic Top Gun commercials he wants, but Florida ain’t free,» he said.

He also reveled in DeSantis, who was in Miami on Saturday night speaking at a private event held by the county Republican Party, and was beaten in the polls against Trump.

“The more people get to know Ronnie D…the less they seem to like him,” he said.

DeSantis’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, the mood of the event belied the institutional challenges Democrats still face in the state as the 2024 election cycle begins to take shape.

For the first time in Florida political history, Republicans have surpassed the Democrats’ voter registration lead, which in the mid-2000s was about 700,000. And the state party is no longer seen as a top priority by a national Democratic Party increasingly focused on states like Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona, all of which are cheaper and blue-leaning.

Florida Democrats also remain without a nominee to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Scott, the state’s largest non-presidential race next year. The list of Democratic candidates in the race includes House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins and former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was seen at the Fontainbleau in Miami. Beach, where the event was held, meeting with former Rep. Val Demings, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in 2022.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried, who was elected in January, has gone out of her way to try to inject energy into a party that has been perceived as stalemate in recent years. The focus of much of her speech, which kicked off the main event of the gala, was centered not only on rallying the troops, but also on trying to wrest from Republicans issues that are often seen as their own in the Political right.

“Let me say this loud and clear, I’m tired. I’m tired of conservatives thinking they have a trademark on the American flag,” he said, gesturing to the half dozen American flags behind her onstage for the event. «Well, they don’t.»

She came out with Tom Petty’s iconic song «I Won’t Back Down,» which was a theme of her speech and a close variation of Never Back Down, the name of the pro-DeSantis super PAC supporting her run for president.

Fried also noted that Democrats in the state have entered the 2024 election cycle with an unexpected wave of momentum, especially in Jacksonville, where in May, Democrat Donna Deegan scored an upset victory in the mayoral race against the Republican-backed DeSantis, Daniel Davis.

“Winning the local races is key to building the state’s infrastructure,” Fried said. «We need to win again.»

It was part of the theme throughout the night that despite persistent stinging losses, Florida Democrats see a path back to prominence in what was once the nation’s largest swing state.

“We are not giving up on Florida. Don’t give up on Florida,” said Democratic Rep. Fredricka Wilson, standing onstage with the state’s Democratic congressional delegation, which holds just eight of the state’s 28 congressional seats. «Don’t leave Florida.»

Fried closed his remarks by expanding on his promise to try to reinstate the Democratic Party in the conservative corners of the state that have long been Republican strongholds. She also shot DeSantis footwearwho has drawn increasing attention on the presidential campaign trail over speculation that he wears elevated boots and shoes. to make it look taller.

“What people see us doing is important. That is why you will see me traversing our state from Pensacola to Key West showing up in places that have been forgotten by this party,” he said.

«I’m not afraid to yell at his bulls—-,» Fried added. «He has terrible taste in shoes… I just couldn’t help it.»