As the election postmortem fight begins, Democratic leaders are consoling themselves with the narrative that Florida was already lost. It’s really a red state, Democrats are being told, which is an excuse that has been echoed by multiple pundits. The problem with that is that it’s just not true. The people here are not overwhelmingly conservative. Not by a longshot. Not only do we have more Democrats than Republicans, but we are a population that consistently votes for the most progressive of ideals every election.
For decades, Democrats bypassed the conservative legislature to get progressive initiatives passed, such as restoring rights to the formerly incarcerated, reducing class size in schools, allowing medical marijuana, forcing allocation of funds for our environment, banning gerrymandering, and on and on. This year, it was the $15 minimum wage that passed overwhelmingly. Even Florida’s famous penchant for gun violence has been tempered—by a group of Florida kids from Parkland who have somehow managed to gut the once-powerful lobby of the N.R.A.
Democrats in this state have always had the ability to turn this state blue, but we have made a lot of stupid mistakes, and must be willing to change course now. Back in February, I laid out lessons Florida Democrats could learn from progressive activists in Virginia, which used to be a solid red state that now has a blue trifecta. We can be Virginia, but right now, we are on track to becoming Missouri—a former bellwether swing state that is now Republican. If that happens, Florida will be lost and destined to suffer a permanent DeSantian nightmare.
Let’s start by looking at some of the successes in the Florida election. Granted, there weren’t many.
First, progressives recruited candidates to run in every race across Florida this year. Democratic leadership usually leaves Republicans to run unopposed in many districts they don’t think are winnable—which is something the GOP never does. Running candidates in all races gives your supporters someone to vote for, which helps statewide margins, and builds a foundation for future success. Several of these candidates performed on par with, or even outperformed, the few candidates the party did focus on, despite not getting any support or endorsements from the Democratic establishment.
Democrats did manage to flip several key swing districts, such as Pinellas County (near Tampa), Duval (Jacksonville), and Seminole (north of Orlando). President-elect Joe Biden is the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Seminole County since 1948. Democrats also significantly chipped away at the GOP lead in the Panhandle’s Okaloosa County.
The old paradigm was for Democrats to drive up numbers in Miami-Dade, cede the red districts, and then try to win over the swing voters and immigrant communities on the I-4 corridor. This year, for the first time, we ceded nothing. The I-4 corridor has moved from swing to blue, and, in fact, will likely surpass Miami-Dade as the state’s Democratic bastion.
Hillsborough County, which contains the Tampa Bay area, became fully blue—after two decades of Republican rule. After Donald Trump’s Sunshine State victory in 2016, Democrats came out in droves to build a sustainable year-round operation. Events were held, fundraising was constant, and they had a full-time office.
I can only imagine what would have happened if Michael Bloomberg aimed his $100 million war chest towards funding ground operations and supporting local candidates, instead of pissing it away on forgettable random TV and radio advertising. Heck, I can only imagine what might have happened if the Florida Democratic establishment had bothered to invest in the infrastructure left behind by Barack Obama. We will never know.
Nonetheless, activists and candidates did work hard to register new voters throughout Florida, and their efforts did pay off. If they hadn’t done that important work, Democrats would have faced a wholesale slaughter on Election Day.
Although I do believe Biden’s team could have done a lot more to win Florida, it’s important to keep in mind that Biden also didn’t need Florida. However, the Trump campaign absolutely could not afford to lose the Sunshine State, and after Bloomberg’s massive investment, spent a lot of resources here that were planned to go towards Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. President-elect Biden put most of his effort into the Rust Belt strategy, which paid off for him. He didn’t invest the money and effort in the South because for him, Georgia and Florida were bonuses, not requirements.
Now let’s look at the failures, of which there were plenty. To be blunt, Florida was a disaster for the Democrats.
What happened here stung particularly hard because we started Nov. 3rd with what looked like several congressional pickup opportunities. We were also supposed to win 2-3 seats in the state senate, which would have at least tied the state legislature. Instead, two incumbent Miami congresswomen—Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell—lost their seats to Republican challengers, while the Democratic gains made in the state legislature in 2018 were completely erased.
Republicans started with a big lead on their ground game. In addition to holding all the positions of power in Florida, they organized early and had no qualms about canvassing in a pandemic. They registered and brought out every deplorable they could find. The Biden campaign, meanwhile, abandoned direct contact with voters due to COVID-19, and instead relied more heavily on text messages and Zoom events. This proved not to be as efficient at reaching Florida voters.
As always, there are also the obvious culprits that occur in every Florida election: dirty tricks and voter suppression. Gov. Ron DeSantis enforced an unlawful poll tax for formerly incarcerated people, and Florida was among the hardest hit by Trump’s USPS sabotage. The Florida GOP also ran shill third-party candidates for the sole purpose of pulling votes away from the Democrats in key races.
Yet as shameful and inexcusable as these shady practices are, they don’t absolve the mistakes made by Florida Democrats. As I mentioned before, the voters may choose red candidates, but they are NOT regressive Republicans. In fact, they are very keen on Democratic ideas. This cycle’s $15 minimum wage question passed with more than 60% of the vote.
Unfortunately, the Florida Democratic establishment refused to endorse it. Consultants told Democratic challengers not to run on it. In fact, they were told to run from it.
How’d that work out?
If you are a Democrat, and believe in Democratic values—like healthcare and a living wage—then you damn well better run on those values. Our platform isn’t just good policy, it’s popular with people. Candidates who don’t believe in those values should run as Republican.
I recall former gubernatorial and congressional candidate Alex Sink, handpicked by the establishment in 2010 and 2014, criticizing the Affordable Care Act. If you recall from those years’ elections, many candidates were wrongly told to run from President Obama. Sink took it a step further and actually said “the president failed us” in regards to the ACA. She subsequently lost both races.
In contrast, Rep. Stephanie Murphy ran loudly and proudly on a platform of gun control in 2016. She’s since won three elections in a row.
Then there is our party leadership. Bob Lynch, a candidate for state representative who the state party wanted to leave unchallenged, put it this way:
“The thing that stood out most to me was the deference and in some cases outright fear that the Florida Democratic Party—both the organization as well as incumbent state Senators and Representatives—have towards the Republican Party. It became incredibly clear that incumbents were more interested in currying favor, or not angering Republicans, than with supporting Democratic candidates.”
I witnessed this first hand. An article I wrote in October, entitled “Are Florida Democrats sabotaging this critical state senate race?”, featured state senate candidate Kathy Lewis, who told me two major Democratic donors withdrew money they had pledged—because they were told not to donate to her campaign. Someone they did back, Javier Fernandez, did not perform as well as Kathy Lewis.
That same article featured Rachel Brown, another state senate candidate who told me the state Senate Minority Leader, Gary Farmer, pressured her to drop out—to clear the field for a Republican he’d backed. Despite her district being ruby red, Brown got 40% of the vote. State house candidate Bob Lynch claims Democratic incumbents wouldn't endorse him unless his Republican opponents approved, out of fear of "retaliation." How are they supposed to win with that mentality from our leadership?
I can’t believe there are any Democrats who would think the Florida GOP would somehow go easy on us if our leaders showed fealty. One need to look no further than the smear campaign they ran in South Florida. Republicans painted Biden and all of the Democrats as socialists, which is particularly potent in the Nicaraguan, Venezuelan and Cuban communities found in this region. Our party then failed to effectively counter this message.
This was particularly frustrating, because the GOP is no friend of immigrants. Donald Trump has steadfastly refused to grant protection for the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan communities, and has done nothing to address their concerns on health care and economic opportunity. Democratic candidates—who ignored the mandate to not do direct campaigning—stressed the benefits of expanding Medicaid, and pointed out that Biden will sign an order protecting these communities from deportation as one of his first acts as president. But the effort was too small, and the Republican operation too large.
There was an effort to counter this narrative, comparing Trump’s dictatorial tendencies with those of Fidel Castro and Nicolás Maduro, but it was too little, too late. The Biden camp ceded the ground game to Trump, who had teams go door to door, spreading baseless propaganda even as they (probably) spread COVID-19.
Democratic candidates campaigned and begged for field organizers from the state party, yet were ignored. The Biden outreach director in South Florida even sent several emails to his bosses days before the election, including one with the headline “WE ARE ON TRACK TO LOSE FLORIDA.” He was ignored as well. In the meantime, the vital immigrant communities were overwhelmed with a tsunami of misinformation, which continues even now, well after the election. While Facebook and Twitter have been cracking down on lies written in English, misinformation on their Spanish-language sites are being ignored.
Although Biden won these immigrant communities, Trump significantly cut into the margins. Biden only won Miami-Dade by 7%; Hillary Clinton won by 30% in 2016. The GOP is already planning a year-round investment in these areas for 2022. Democrats can no longer afford to take these communities for granted and only show up for election time—which, thanks to COVID-19, we barely did this year.
Contrast this with what happened thousands of miles away. A coordinated outreach strategy spanning several months won the Latino communities in Maricopa and Yuma counties in Arizona; they turned out for Biden by 63%. This, along with a strong showing by the Navajo Nation, helped turn Arizona blue for the first time in 24 years.
Florida Democrats should look into having outreach coordinators for each community, and end the ridiculous overarching “Latinx” label that treats them all as one giant bloc. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, and Nicaraguans are not all the same: They don’t have a shared identity, a shared history, or a shared experience, and each community is focused on different issues.
Example: There is a false assumption that immigration is the top Latinx issue, but this is not a concern for Puerto Ricans in Orlando, who are U.S. citizens, or Cubans in Miami, whose immigration status is different from people from Venezuela or Nicaragua.
Right now, Florida Democrats are in a vicious cycle. We lose the election, the Democratic leadership takes the wrong lessons, and then we lose again. The same people, the same overpaid consultants, and the same dismal strategy. Let’s break out of that.
The good news is that the Florida GOP is being obvious about their 2022 playbook, which relies on the same strategy utilized this cycle. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio are going to smear their Democratic opponents as socialists, try to gut our margins in the immigrant communities, and run up their numbers in the rural districts, but we can counter this!
Every race needs to be contested, at every level. If no one in your area steps up, do it yourself. Don’t expect much help from party leadership, but be happy if they don’t sabotage. Democrats need to support each other in our races.
Start engaging with voters now. Don’t ever be afraid to talk with voters in red districts. I did it here in Seminole County when it was dark red. It was harder for people to label me a socialist when I explained I was trying to protect Social Security and Medicare. It didn’t turn blue overnight, but all that hard work did make a difference.
Democrats need to call out the racist and fascist tendencies of the GOP when they try to smear all Democrats as socialists. The GOP is legitimately trying to stage a coup to throw out hundreds of thousands of legal votes. Dems can’t do “high-road, issues-based” policy campaigns when democracy is under attack and our candidates are being subjected to fear-mongering conspiracy theories.
We need to be registering voters all year long, not just in the months before an election. The state party should back those at the local level who are reaching out to the new voters. Stacey Abrams ran an unprecedented grassroots voter registration drive and then mobilized the likely voters. Florida can learn so much from her.
I hope our Democratic candidates and leaders have learned that they cannot take the immigrant communities for granted. They need to be at every event and festival reaching out to them—just like the Republicans do. Every vote must be earned.
Stop treating Hispanic groups like a monolith. No more blanket “Hispanic outreach.” Each Hispanic and Caribbean community is unique and we need to micro-target their concerns, not lump them all together.
Treat elections like the Republicans do: as multi-year investments, not part-time gigs that pop up before a big vote. This is a long slog. Join your local party now and get to work.
Develop constitutional amendments (which are citizen initiatives in Florida) to bypass the state legislature to get progressive policies passed.
Proudly run on those popular progressive initiatives for a change.
Fire every consultant we’ve been using. Get new leadership that isn’t afraid to stand up to the Republicans.
The wrong lesson to take from this election? To run on a GOP-lite platform, out of fear of being attacked by the right-wing. Nothing is going to stop that. We just need to do a better job of fighting back and fighting for votes.
Florida isn’t red, and we aren’t hopeless, yet. Just stupid sometimes.
Don’t give up on us.