How the Democrats lost Florida
RTHE FATHER OF THE NAM just making America great again Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, aims to make America Florida. That rally call should send shivers down any Democrat’s spine. In a state that used to swing, today Republicans hold majorities in both legislative chambers, controlling both Senate seats and all state executive offices. The policies approved in his statehouse this session were some of the toughest in the country.
In February Mr. DeSantis called the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) “dead, rotting hearse on the side of the road”. His judgment was not all wrong. The party that delivered two consecutive victories for Barack Obama is now in disarray, and its foot soldiers are disappointed. “You can put Jesus Christ on the ballot, but ifD‘ next to his name no one in Florida will vote for him,” said one party strategist.
This is a significant change, given Florida’s 30 electoral college votes. Before 1996, the Democratic state continued. Even after the Republicans swept the state legislature that year, the Democrats remained competitive for ten years. But the blue wave that washed over much of America in the 2018 midterms – House Democrats won 10m more votes nationwide than Republicans, the largest voting margin ever – lost Florida. And four years later, the Democrats got an upset in the state. Mr. DeSantis was re-elected as governor by 19 points and won Miami-Dade County, a Democratic stronghold that a Republican candidate for governor had not carried in 20 years. The chairman of the FDP resign.
How did Florida become such a hostile state for Democrats? One partial explanation may be that more Republicans than Democrats moved to the state when covid-19 hit. Of the 394,000 voters who came to Florida between March 2020 and November 2022 – adding to the state’s 14m – 49% were Republicans and 25% were Democrats.
But there’s more to the story, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. Existing voters are also ditching the Dems: in the year to July 2022, nearly three-quarters of those who switched parties did so to become Republicans. And the Democrats are struggling to get voters to show up at the polls. The four urban counties that Mr. DeSantis carried in 2022 had a higher share of registered Democrats than Republicans. But a larger share of those Republicans voted.
The FDPtheir own miseries are also overcome. In 2012, after Obama’s second win, the state’s Democrats felt they had elected Florida’s lock. A quick, data-driven campaign of Spanish ads and carefully chosen proxies allowed Mr. Obama to capture nearly half of Florida’s Cuban-American vote, leading him to victory in the state.
But when the Democrats went away to Washington to satisfy their victory they never came back, says Fernand Amandi, the consultant of the campaign. Door-to-door visits and voter registration came to a halt. Hillary Clinton, who lost Florida in 2016, swapped bus tours in rural swing counties for large rallies in safe cities. And leadership chaos plagued the party. Since 2014 the FDP has been through five chairs. Allegations of inappropriate behavior towards women excluded one; misuse of other federal funds. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, Florida Democrats had a 260,000 voter registration margin over Republicans. The Republicans now have half a million more voters (see chart).
The more the Democrats lost, the harder it became to find good people to stand up for. While Republicans were building a candidate-specific recruiting machine, Democrats looked to volunteers. They ended up with worse candidates. Progressives rallied around Andrew Gillum, the first black nominee for governor in Florida, who lost to Mr. DeSantis by just 0.4 percentage points in 2018. After he withdrew from politics, cops tracked down Mr. Gillum in a hotel bathroom with methamphetamine and an overdosed male defendant. He was later, without bond, indicted for wire fraud. With a better candidate, the Democrats surely would have stopped Mr. DeSantis’ ascension.
The party’s negligence also prevented donors. John Morgan, a famous lawyer who has given millions to the Democrats, does not see anyone in the party who is capable of winning a state office in Florida. “My money is deep, deep in my pockets right now,” he says. The national party is not skimping. In last year’s midterm campaign, national Democratic groups spent less than $2m in Florida, down from nearly $60m in 2018.
Republicans – inside and outside the state – skillfully tease Democrats with red meat issues, forcing them to defend a progressive stance. That can play out especially badly in Florida. Fighting anti-wokism and queer bullying is a losing strategy in a state with large sections of elderly whites and religious Hispanics, says Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach.
So he promotes gun control. A survey by the Lincoln Project, an organization that has never been on Trump, found that one-third of concealed carry permit holders in Florida were registered Democrats. Even among young voters, who tend to be more progressive, the party is getting it wrong. Val Demings and Charlie Crist, who lost Democratic nominations for senator and governor respectively in 2022, campaigned heavily on abortion. But polls show that Gen-Z Floridians are more concerned about climate policy.
To rebuild in Florida, Democrats may have to admit they’ve lost the culture wars and focus on the economy instead. Since 2015 the cost of property insurance has increased by nearly 60% in Florida; today Tampa and Miami have the highest inflation rates in the country. The economy-first message helped Democratic candidate Donna Deegan win the Jacksonville mayoral race in May. Talk of restoring roads and promoting small businesses appealed to some of the voters who gave Mr. DeSantis a 12-point victory six months earlier. That’s the kind of campaign Democrats need to stop the bleeding, says Steve Schale, a Tallahassee strategist.
Can Florida Democrats Resurrect Themselves? In July Nikki Fried, the new one FDP chairman, raised spirits by announcing that the party would donate $1m to voter registration. The Florida Leadership Council, an organization created by veteran politicians to seek out and train smart young Democrats, is getting ahead. And some strategists believe Florida’s ban on six-week abortions could swing Democrats to the polls in 2024. But without more money, races will be hard to win and donors to withdraw. If change comes at all, it is unlikely to come quickly. ■
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