Democrats crushed it in 2022. We managed to save democracy (for now) and keep America from descending into authoritarianism. Well, everywhere except Florida, that is. Once again, my home state has let everyone down. The establishment-backed Democratic candidate for governor, Charlie Crist, a former Republican, failed spectacularly. But it’s worse than that: For the first time in decades, not one statewide office is held by a Democrat. Furthermore, the GOP obtained supermajorities in the legislature, not that they needed it. All of this happened in a balanced state that until very recently always had more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now having no reason to moderate, has gone full fascist. He’s destroying our universities. Venues that put on shows that don’t meet with DeSantis’ approval are having licenses revoked, and school libraries are literally being emptied. (Any teacher caught giving a unapproved book to a student risks a five-year prison sentence and $5,000 fine.) He supports a bill that will require bloggers who criticize him to register with the state. So much for the “free” state of Florida. But at least you can have guns, lots and lots of guns, and will soon be able to walk around shopping centers, parks, and college campuses with an AR-15 across your back.
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There’re plenty of reasons the GOP was able to seize control and turn my state into a totalitarian hellhole. There’s the illegal gerrymandering, voter suppression, unlawful voter arrests, and massive amounts of disinformation targeting marginalized communities. Yet if I’m being honest, there’s a lot of blame for our team. The Florida Democratic machine isn’t just bad, it’s completely broken. Our state party is in shambles, and donor investments have dried up because they have lost faith in our state party. As a result, even though we are a large state full of Democrats, Mississippi has more Democratic representatives in their legislature than we do. How did we get here?
Florida is not, or at least should not be, a red state. Barack Obama handily won this state twice. When Florida put up an actual progressive, Andrew Gillum, he came in within less than one half of 1% of defeating DeSantis. Instead, Florida Democratic leadership went back to what it always does: insist on running “Republican-lite” candidates, despite all evidence to the contrary that that ever works. They put up “Chain-gang Charlie” Crist not once, but twice, for governor. He lost both times.
Why ‘Republican-lite’ never works
Previously, they put up Alex Sink for both governor and then representative in a special election. I remember her primary message was that Obamacare is flawed. She lost both of those elections. Her failure as a politician is the reason you have to deal with Rick Scott in the Senate, the guy who is currently trying to destroy Social Security and Medicare.
Republicans are very, very good at setting the narrative in this state, and they have all but declared that Florida is now hopelessly red. (It isn’t.) What they are really crowing about is south Florida, which had been the Democrats’ stronghold in this state. For decades, our political truth has been red in the north, swing in the middle (the “I-4 corridor”), and deep blue in the south, especially Miami-Dade. In recent years, the swing areas have since developed a pink hue, and Miami-Dade County actually went for DeSantis by 11 points last time. It’s infuriating.
In fact, DeSantis creamed Crist with 1.5 million more votes. There’re plenty of reasons for this as national Democrats put resources everywhere except Florida, which allowed the Florida GOP to outspend us 7 to 1. Although DeSantis did improve his vote count from his last election, the big reason Crist lost by so much was that Democrats simply didn’t show up at the polls. Close to 1 million Democrats who showed up in 2018 didn’t bother showing up in 2022.
Are you telling me that Georgia is a more progressive state than Florida? It isn’t, but they have real Democratic leaders with a vision, like Stacey Abrams, who turn out the vote. Now Georgia has two Democratic senators. The problem has never been that Florida loves Republicans. How do I know this? Because Floridians constantly make an end run around our legislature through voter initiatives—in Florida, it’s through amending our constitution—despite the fact that GOP legislators keep increasing the threshold to do it. We have medical marijuana, environmental protections, minimum wage increases, voter protections, and anti-gerrymandering laws all because the people voted for these items in large numbers—even during the red wave years.
Floridians love Democratic policies, but don’t support our candidates. This goes the other way as well: Floridians actually hate Republican policies, but always vote for the Republican candidate. It’s this dynamic that perplexes the Democratic establishment:
Our candidates need to go all in on popular progressive policies. Our stance on prescription drugs, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are easily contrasted with those of the GOP. Even Biden singled out DeSantis in his State of the Union speech, calling him out on choosing not to expand Medicaid in the state. We are the party that protects workers, fights for a living wage, and pushes for universal health care. These are all winning issues in a state like Florida, which is dominated by minimum-wage jobs. DeSantis doesn’t ever want to talk about these things, because he knows his stances aren’t popular. (If you happen to be a southern Florida mayor, he just won’t talk to you at all.)
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Some of the good ones
We can start by looking at successful Florida Democratic politicians, including a die-hard Orange County progressive who bucked the trend last year: Anna Eskamani.
Eskamani is a liberal Democrat and former Planned Parenthood director who proudly and unequivocally supports abortion rights and increased gun control. She is very vocal on her liberal stances. She is also well-known for putting a lot of hours going door to door on her campaigns.
Her race in 2018 was extremely competitive, and this year’s was even more so after DeSantis’ gerrymander. Yet she won in 2018 and 2020 with comfortable margins. She is the first Iranian American elected to the Florida legislature. If we had more candidates like her, the Democrats would not be in such bad shape.
A former state senator in South Florida, Annette Taddeo, shared her theory with Yahoo News on why Democrats are struggling here. “We've got a lot of Democrats who stay home. We need to bring them out ... and not shy away from our values. Be proud of our values. Maybe the reason we’ve been losing is because we haven’t been proud of saying what we’re for. We’re so busy saying what they’re against and how horrible they are. How about talking about what we’re going to do? And how great we are? And what do we stand for?”
Sadly, Taddeo lost her race this past November by 15 points. Gerrymandering played a role, as Democratic Miami Beach was taken from her district, but worse was the fact that the Republican money machine barraged her community with false claims that she was “socialista,” “communista,” and even a terrorist sympathizer.
This was particularly deplorable since her own father was kidnapped by the very same terrorist group her GOP opposition dishonestly claimed she was supporting. At the end of the day, however, it was all about turnout. Republicans invested heavily in messaging and getting out the vote in her district, and our party didn’t.
Donna Shalala agreed. She was the congresswoman who held this district before Taddeo. She lamented to WLRN, “Annette Taddeo was a superb candidate. She had the perfect profile for this district. They turned out their voters, we did not turn out our voters.”
Running the same playbook
Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, our state party ran the exact same playbook as in 2020. They listened to people like Gwen Graham, who was a former Democratic representative known for stabbing her own base in the back with her conservative votes and her refusal to support former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Her answer for 2022 was to not change anything. “We are a center-right state,” Politico reported. “There are so many wonderful young progressive leaders in this state, and I’m supportive of their passion and commitment. I love their energy, but in the short term we need to elect a Democratic governor and need to be smart about 2022.” Great advice, Gwen.
What’s frustrating for activists like me is that we know how to win, but we just don’t do it. I’ve seen this play out so many times before that many of my fellow activists have just given up. In the past, I’ve tried to use my platform on Daily Kos to promote candidates in races that our Democratic leaders have not only refused to invest in but have sometimes actively sabotaged. There is a false belief that it’s better for Democrats to not run in the red districts, so Republicans won’t show up in large numbers.
We had situations where progressive organizations were forced to recruit candidates to run in these districts because our state party leaders refused to even field candidates for those races. In cases where someone tried to run as a Democrat, they even tried to convince the candidate to drop out.
Now that Taddeo’s state Senate district 40 in south Florida went red, I already know exactly what will happen. The state Democrats will declare that this district is unwinnable and will instead focus only on shoring up the dwindling number of Democratic districts. This is such a loser mentality and the exact opposite of what the Republicans would do.
If Taddeo had won by a large margin, as she did last time, the GOP wouldn’t give up. Instead, they would invest heavily in this district. They would send out teams of volunteers and run ads in Spanish and Creole to target the immigrant communities in this district.
I know this because I've seen them do this for years, and slowly but surely, they have managed to peel off enough voters in these blue areas that Democrats in this state take for granted. As a result, for the first time in 20 years, a Republican actually won this Democratic stronghold last year.
For the past few election cycles, all Republican candidates coordinated with a message that Democrats embrace communism. This is extremely sensitive and effective within the south Florida immigrant communities because the people, whether Cuban, Venezuelan, Columbian, or Nicaraguan, have fled from oppressive left-wing dictatorships.
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The fact that supporting a social safety net is being conflated with communism, or the fact that these dictators have much more in common with the authoritarian impulses of today’s GOP is conveniently glossed over. Yet the stone-cold reality is that this messaging has been very successful, and Democrats have not been able to counter the narrative.
Republicans have not only courted these communities with advertising but have also been actively recruiting candidates and aggressively registering new voters. Republicans registered over 58,000 new Hispanic voters in south Florida in just two years, whereas Democrats lost 46,000 during that same time period. Right now, Miami-Dade County has over 329,000 Republicans who identify as Hispanic, as compared to just over 239,000 Democrats. Yet there is opportunity. Unaffiliated Hispanic voters in this county now number over 309,000. These are the folks our leaders should be focusing on.
How we can win
The sad fact is that Democrats could hardly lose much more. At some point, our party has to recognize that what we have always done isn’t working. The tactics of not competing, promoting centrism, and sucking up to corporate interests haven’t worked, and never will. It can’t just be the activists and progressive organizations that are out there. We need support from national groups for messaging, aggressive voter registration, and get out the vote efforts.
We can learn from what Abrams did in Georgia. She took advantage of the demographic shift ignored by national Democrats. She set out to prove that Democrats could win a deep red state by simply expanding their coalition to include disengaged voters of color, as opposed to pandering to moderate, undecided white voters.
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At minimum, our people need to show up. I don’t mean just right before an election, but I mean going to every festival and event to spread our message and combat the disinformation campaigns. The GOP certainly shows up. No longer content to cut into our base of support, they have spent years courting these immigrant communities and tailoring their narrative to outright win them over. GOP candidates have booths at every south Florida community event, and they join protests that the exiles hold so they can falsely tie their grievances to Democratic support for social programs.
The state GOP also recruits conservative Hispanic candidates to run in these districts, and they credited their “wave of Latino candidates” with helping achieve their big victory last year. In addition, they offer free classes in Spanish to their members to help with the messaging. Contrast this with our last incumbent Senate candidate, who didn’t bother to run ads in Spanish and didn’t even have a Spanish-language website.
We need to own the successes we’ve attained by going directly to the people, which have proven very popular throughout the state: minimum wage increases, women’s health care rights, requiring land and water conservation, restoring voting rights, investing in education, and keeping classroom sizes small. These aren’t pathways to communism, but to a better life. When Republicans inevitably attack us as socialists, Democrats need to counter by pointing out the similarities between Trump’s authoritarian GOP and the regimes they fled. Truly, that is the real danger.
Finally, we need candidates who won’t be afraid to run as Democrats, fight back, and not try to win as “GOP-lite.” We already know exactly how to win here—we’ve done it before. We just need to change course, make the investment, and this time, actually do it.