TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It wasn’t just one bad cycle. For Democrats in Florida, Election Day 2020 was a tipping point in a long, painful buildup to irrelevancy.
After suffering crushing losses from the top of the ballot down, the state party now is mired in a civil war that could have profound consequences for future elections.
High hopes for gains in the state Legislature have given way to recriminations and finger-pointing. Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo is almost certain to lose her job, but no one has stepped up to claim her mantle. Prospective 2022 gubernatorial candidates, including state Rep. Anna Eskamani and state Sen. Jason Pizzo, are slinging blame. And redistricting, which could deliver Democrats into another decade of insignificance, is around the corner.
Even as Joe Biden heads to the White House, state Democrats know that President Donald Trump did more than just win in Florida. He tripled his 2016 margin and all but stripped Florida of its once-vaunted status as a swing state. His win, a landslide by state presidential standards, was built on record turnout and a Democratic implosion in Miami-Dade County, one of the bluest parts of the state.
“We have turnout problems, messaging problems, coalitions problems, it’s up and down the board,” said Democrat Sean Shaw, a former state representative who lost a bid for attorney general in 2018. “It’s not one thing that went wrong. Everything went wrong.”
While Democratic losses were particularly devastating in Florida, the party fared poorly across the country at the state level. The timing couldn’t be worse. Political redistricting begins next year and Republicans in control of statehouses across the country will have a chance to draw favorable maps that will help their state and federal candidates for the next decade.
What happens next in Florida could be an early signal of how the Democratic Party’s current progressive-centrist divide plays out in Washington and elsewhere. In interviews, more than 20 Democratic officials, organizers and party leaders throughout the state said the party schism has grown only deeper since Election Day. Would-be gubernatorial candidates have already begun trading fire as they begin to lay the ground to try and defeat Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
This year, Florida Democrats had one of the worst performances of any state party in the country. They lost five seats in the state House after expecting to make gains. Three state Senate hopefuls were defeated, and incumbent U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who represented districts in Miami, were unseated.
Many of the party’s failures over the years can be traced to unforced errors. When Democrat Andrew Gillum lost the governor’s race in 2018, he had $3.5 million still sitting in the bank. He then pledged to register and reengage 1 million Florida voters this cycle, but that evaporated after he left public life amid scandal.
Florida Democrats haven’t held the governor’s office for more than two decades, and they’ve been out of power in the Legislature for nearly a quarter-century. Since their last big win, when President Barack Obama won Florida in 2012, Democrats have won just a single statewide race — out of 12.
This year, the party continued to make mistakes.
As Trump made the state his official residence and his top political priority for four years, lavishing resources and attention on it, the Democrats again neglected to build an infrastructure for talking to voters outside of campaign season. The Biden campaign chose to forgo voter canvassing in the state because of the coronavirus pandemic. And outside money that the party apparatus couldn’t control sometimes worked against its own candidates.
Democrats also failed to counter GOP messaging that branded them as anti-cop and pro-socialism, an expected and effective — albeit misleading — message aimed largely at South Florida Hispanic voters.
Those mistakes helped Trump cut into Biden’s margins in Florida, most notably in Hispanic-heavy Miami-Dade County, where Biden won by only 7 points, less than a fourth of Hillary Clinton’s margin just four years ago.
“The state leadership of the Biden campaign failed us,” said Daniela Ferrara, co-founder of Cubanos con Biden. “I’m still dumbfounded by the fact that Georgia was able to turn blue but we weren’t.”
Left v. center
The day after the election, nine state lawmakers who had survived the GOP rout met by phone to air grievances, according to Sen. Jazon Pizzo. Among those on the call were Pizzo, who also is considering a run for governor, Annette Taddeo and Rep. Joe Geller — a mix of centrists and liberals.
The group fumed over pollsters who failed to capture what was happening on the ground, complained about the party’s use of out-of-state consultants and questioned whether they hit back hard enough against Republican falsehoods.
“I’m not a f—ing socialist,” Pizzo later said in an interview. “My life is a manifestation of the American dream. I believe in free markets.”
The meeting, which was not previously reported, amplified the fact the politicians can’t answer a simple question: Who is the leader of the Florida Democratic Party?
Progressives say the Election Day drubbing is proof that centrism and party pandering to corporate donors doesn’t work.
“Systematic change is what we need,” said Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat and a leading voice on the left who is considering a run for governor. “We can’t win more seats unless we lead with values and fight back and challenge corporate interests. Money was not a real problem this cycle, and we still lost.”
Centrists, who traditionally have made up the party’s base of power in Florida, say a lurch to the left will decisively doom the party’s chances of taking the governor’s mansion in 2022.
“We are a center-right state,” said Gwen Graham, another potential contender for governor who once represented a conservative congressional seat.
“There are so many wonderful young progressive leaders in this state, and I’m supportive of their passion and commitment,” she said in an interview. “I love their energy, but in the short term we need to elect a Democratic governor and need to be smart about 2022.”
Others on the 2022 short list for governor include Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Reps. Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy.
As the party’s only statewide elected Democrat, Fried has been viewed as the effective head of the party since her win in 2018. This cycle, she made endorsements and gave money to legislative candidates, but she’s also come under withering criticism, including for her weak stands on environmental policy and increasing the minimum wage.
John Morgan, a trial lawyer and party donor who backed a ballot initiative this year to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15, hit Fried for her tepid support of the measure.
“That bullshit doesn’t work with me,” Morgan told reporters earlier this month. “To me, Nikki Fried has disqualified herself from any future or statewide office in the Democratic Party and I’m sorry to say that because I really thought she had a bright future.”
The $15 minimum wage initiative, which passed with nearly 61 percent of the vote on Election Day, has emerged as the first postelection issue to feed Democrats’ internal tensions. Some potential 2022 candidates, including Pizzo and Esakamani, criticized Fried and the Florida Democratic Party for failing to strongly advocate for an issue they believe should be a key identifier of the party’s philosophical identity.
Fried said she endorsed the measure and said it wasn’t helpful for the party to “throw grenades.”
But it’s accepted wisdom that the party is in dire need of leadership.
“In terms of a trusted voice for everyone, I think there is a void there,” said Maya Brown, a Tampa-based organizer focused on turning out Black and Hispanic voters.
Forward Majority, a Washington-based political committee that took the lead on independent spending for Democratic House races this year, is facing the ire of Florida-based consultants who thought the group wasted money on unwinnable seats when Democrats had a chance to flip two Senate seats.
The committee poured more than $12 million into House races but ultimately didn’t move the needle. Three House Democratic incumbents fell, and roughly a half-dozen vulnerable Republicans survived.
“They should be leaving with their tails dragging between their legs,” said Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Ruth’s List Florida, which works to elect female candidates. “We live here. We know what is going on here.”
Forward Majority spokesperson Ben Wexler-Waite did not respond to a request for comment.
”People want to point fingers and blame people when I think the entire house needs to be taken down,” said state Rep. Evan Jenne, an incoming House Minority leader who helped run Democratic congressional campaigns.
Rizzo, the party chair, could take the fall.
As she faces pressure to step down, her supporters blame the party’s failures on factors outside of her control, including Forward Majority’s independent spending.
“The loudest complainers want ‘accountability’ for losses and then donate huge sums to dark money organizations or super PACS specifically designed to work around and outside the party and caucuses,” said Beth Matuga, a party consultant and defender of the Florida Democratic Party apparatus.
The Biden campaign, too, failed the state party and itself. Miami-based Democratic operatives have long sent warning signs that the party begins outreach too late and is insufficiently ingrained in the South Florida Hispanic community.
“If we are waiting until September to do voter contact when the mail ballots are already arriving, we have lost already,” Brown said. “At that point, folks are filling out ballots without hearing from us.”
This year, the lack of embedded community organizing hampered the party’s ability to push back at Republican branding that proved brutally effective, even after Michael Bloomberg dumped $100 million in the state to defeat Trump.
“Given the fact every Hispanic voter is either directly or indirectly gone through their own experience as a victim of a socialist or communist regime, the potency around the branding of a political party as the second coming of socialism or communism in the United States is very effective,” Miami-based pollster Fernand Amandi said.
Attempts to reach a spokesperson for Biden’s Florida campaign were unsuccessful.
Ferrara, the co-founder of Cubanos con Biden, said leading Democrats and the Biden campaign also did not take seriously the disinformation spread in Miami-Dade, a problem that has plagued Democrats in past election cycles.
Her group monitored Spanish-language radio stations that fed a constant diet of attacks on Democrats as socialists. She asked the campaign for talking points and help to push back against the message, which was going out to not only Cuban Americans, but Nicaraguan Americans and Venezuelan Americans as well.
No one paid attention, she said.
“There was always an excuse,” Ferrara said. “It was almost if they didn’t care. They didn’t see the impact of the socialism message.”
The Biden campaign also saw no point in sending surrogates or volunteers to voting sites in Cuban cities. The Biden campaign had “a lack of cultural competency,” sending Chiva buses — a colorful vehicle used in rural Colombia — into Cuban neighborhoods of Miami-Dade.
Ferrara accused the Biden campaign of “political malpractice.”
Lessons learned, then forgotten
Democrats said they had learned from the lessons of the past in 2018 after they watched Gillum lose to DeSantis and de facto party leader Sen. Bill Nelson lose to Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Party leaders that year established the Path to Power Commission, which was tasked with figuring out what went wrong and making recommendations.
“The party should hire a pollster or conduct a focus group to help craft nuanced messaging to the Latinx community,” read the final report crafted by the Path to Power Commission, which Fried chaired. “Better training must be developed to engage Latinx voters and develop messages that appeal to this diverse group.”
The report also recommended expanding Hispanic voter outreach and investing in paid Spanish-language ads.
The party did neither to the degree the report suggested.
As Democrats now begin the process of compiling a Path to Power redux, no consensus exists about the best way to move forward.
“You can’t just show up a month before the election and expect people to be excited to vote for you,” said Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who has butted heads with party leaders, including Rizzo. “We go through this every two fricking years.”
The funding quagmire
Others agree that a more permanent political infrastructure is necessary, but funding it will be difficult as long as donors consider the party politically irrelevant — and progressives push for more distance from corporate interests.
Donors who gave record sums to the party this year are frustrated, said Brice Barnes, a Biden Florida fundraiser. “It’s harder to raise money after getting beat badly.”
The funding quagmire is another fundamental divide between traditional party leaders and the progressive wing. Eskamani and others say small-dollar donors, not transactional donors whose contributions flow to political power, are the way to transform the party, while aligning it with what she says is the party’s philosophical core.
Then there’s the most humbling reality of all: Floridians at the end of the day supported the Trumpism that has defined the past four years.
“Donald Trump did not make any bones about what he was running on and voters here said they wanted more of that,” said Raymond Paultre, a consultant aligned with The Alliance, a loosely aligned collection of progressive Florida donors. “That is disheartening.”
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