Florida Democrats fight to reclaim political relevance
Florida Democrats are scrambling to claw their way back from the brink of irrelevance after an unsparingly brutal midterm election cycle that saw some of the last vestiges of the party’s power in the Sunshine State slip away.
Their challenges are steep. The Florida Democratic Party, now without a chair, has been mired in financial and organizational struggles for years. Republicans now hold supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and for the first time since Reconstruction, there’s not a single Democrat in statewide office.
Democratic leaders in the state are slated to meet later this month to elect a new party chair in what many Democrats see as the first step in reclaiming Florida’s status as the nation’s premier swing state.
“We’ve had rough patches before, but I think recently, some patches have been rougher than others,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida. “So for the party right now, it’s about infrastructure building; creating an organization — or at least the skeleton of an organization — that can actually compete in Florida.”
For decades, Florida reigned as the country’s largest and most unpredictable battleground state — one that went twice for former President George W. Bush and then twice again for former President Obama.
But Democrats have suffered a long series of losses there in recent years, ranging from a U.S. Senate seat to a handful of House and state legislative districts. Former President Trump carried Florida twice, while the 2022 midterms saw Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) score a resounding 19-point victory, all the while flipping traditional Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade and Osceola counties.
Just two months after the midterms, Manny Diaz, the chair of the state Democratic Party, abruptly resigned, leaving the organization virtually rudderless. A handful of Democrats jumped into the race to succeed him, but only three remain: former state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Fla.), political consultant Alex Berrios and Broward County Democratic Executive Committee Chair Rick Hoye.
Taddeo, a former Miami-Dade Democratic Party chair who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) for her House seat last year, said that the state party has long neglected its basic functions, ranging from voter registration efforts to basic counter-messaging against Republican attacks.
“It is going to be grunt work,” Taddeo said in an interview with The Hill. “I don’t think that Florida is a red state, but if we don’t register voters and we don’t do the grunt work long term, we’re wasting our time.”
Taddeo also said that she has been talking to donors in an effort to rebuild their trust and confidence in the Florida Democratic Party.
“We know what to do,” she said. “But part of the problem is a lot of people have been investing in other organizations outside the party, because they don’t trust the party. You need someone with a plan who is going to put together a top-notch team so the investment comes.”
Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based strategist and pollster who helped Obama win the state during the 2008 and 2012 elections, said that, for the time being, the state party apparatus is virtually non-existent.
“Democrats have not only abandoned the playing field, they haven’t been on the playing field,” he said. “There are no recruitment efforts. There’s no bench. There’s no leadership. You put all those factors together and it’s kind of a daunting enterprise.”
But, Amandi added, it doesn’t have to stay that way.
“Florida is not South Dakota. It is not Utah. It is not Wyoming,” he said. “But if you don’t build it, races will not be won. There are enough voters here, there are enough independents here. There’s a pathway but the brand needs to be totally redefined.”
Several Florida Democrats acknowledged that the path back to competitiveness would be a years-long process. Dwight Bullard, a former Florida state senator and a senior political adviser to Florida Rising, a progressive group in the state, warned that the next chair of the state party will have a “thankless job,” adding that there should be no expectation that things will turn around for the party by the 2024 elections.
“When you look at 2024, I wouldn’t have some sort of wayward expectation that there’s going to be a sweep,” Bullard said. “But it’ll be the incremental wins that are important. Maybe a congressional seat or two, a few statehouse seats.”
“It’s methodical. It’s slow. It requires you to think about not always trying to hit the home run, but being more strategic about winning in the long term,” he added.
Updated voter registration numbers published by the Florida Department of State on Wednesday underscored just how far Democrats have to go. There are now nearly 400,000 more registered Republican voters than Democratic voters. Just 15 years ago, when Obama first won the state in 2008, there were nearly 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Democrats also acknowledged a yawning enthusiasm gap with Florida Republicans, who have largely coalesced around DeSantis. DeSantis’s strength has made him a star among conservatives, who now see him as a top contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Nikki Fried, who served until recently as the only Democrat elected to statewide office as Florida’s agriculture commissioner, said that the balance of power in Florida has become “lopsided,” with no clear Democratic counter to DeSantis and his agenda.
“You’re seeing these stories coming out of Tallahassee. And there’s no response from Democrats. It just looks like we’re a minority party,” Fried told The Hill in an interview.
But the Democratic Party in the state “can’t be dead,” she insisted.
“We have to get this right because unfortunately if we don’t you’re seeing these totalitarian and zealot types of policies coming and we have a governor who feels this is the blueprint for America,” Fried said.
She said things started to go south for the party after the 2016 election, when there was still a voter registration advantage, and pointed to the lack of organization, money and infrastructure. “No one was lifting up the candidates,” she said.
“It’s not something that happened overnight,” she said. “It’s been an accumulation of years’ worth of Democrats not fixing it.”
There are also deep, internal challenges that lie ahead for whoever becomes the next chair. Diaz, a former mayor of Miami, took charge of the Florida Democratic Party little more than two years ago with the promise of boosting the group’s fundraising and building out a year-round political operation.
But in announcing his resignation last month, he admitted that he hadn’t succeeded in accomplishing what he had set out to do, casting the party structure as stubbornly resistant to change.
“During my tenure, I hoped to address these issues, and build a united party without silos, focused exclusively on our purpose — to elect Democrats,” Diaz said in a statement.
“Instead, I found obstacles to securing the resources and a long-standing, systemic and deeply entrenched culture resistant to change; one where individual agendas are more important than team; where self-interest dominates and bureaucracies focus on self-preservation.”
Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s Florida operation in 2008, argued that it’s not too late for Democrats to turn things around.
“Why would it be too late?” he asked. “There are very serious problems here. I’m not sugar-coating it. But I don’t believe it’s that massively different of a state than when Barack Obama won and Hillary Clinton almost won. If anything, it’s more diverse now than it was back then.”
“There is a road back,” he said.
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