Recent statewide elections in Florida have not gone the Democrats’ way, but the party is convinced a prolonged effort it has started will turn the state blue by 2020 and deliver its 29 electoral votes to the party’s presidential candidate.
In 2018, Democrats were confident they would win Senate and gubernatorial races. Instead, Republicans won both by narrow margins, just as President Trump had carried the state in 2016.
“It’s true — we are no longer the 1% state, we’re the half-percent state,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor and the dean of Florida political analysts.
To close that tiny gap, Democrats have announced to much fanfare this month what it called a “monumental” $2 million in spending to register 200,000 people before next year’s elections.
“It’s about making the electorate we need versus the electorate the polling says we have,” state party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said, as quoted in a blast the party sent last week trumpeting its “war council.”
Part of the effort involves strengthening the loyalty of existing Democrats, while another part relies on court challenges: The party recently rejoiced when a U.S. district judge tossed a law that had stood in Florida for nearly 70 years that placed the candidates from the sitting governor’s party first on ballots.
Above all, according to Ms. Rizzo and others, the effort will rely on registration. The Democrats said they will put a particular emphasis on “LGBTQ voters, people living with disabilities, Hispanic and Latino voters, African Americans understanding what the Democratic Party stands for and why our ideas our better, how we bring stability to the country and especially in Florida,” she said.
Democrats acknowledge Mr. Trump will have a resonant message with voters, given Florida’s booming economy and low 3.2% unemployment rate.
On top of that, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has seen his popularity soar since he narrowly beat former Tallahassee Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum in 2018. A recent poll put Mr. DeSantis’ favorability rating at 72%, the highest ever for a Florida governor.
Democrats should find a receptive audience among Florida’s youth and its college campuses, however.
“Forty-six percent of Florida voters are under 50,” Ms. MacManus noted. “It’s not what people think, but that’s the Florida that’s out there.”
College students are overwhelmingly liberal in their outlook but reticent about joining parties, Ms. MacManus said.
“They vote for a person, not a party,” she said. “There has been a surge in nonpolitically affiliated voters, and almost all of them are young.”
Who they will vote for remains to be seen, although Florida has a closed presidential primary, so Democrats are working hard to hit their registration targets in the next few months.
Thus far, they appear to have achieved mixed results.
Florida has nearly 5 million registered Democrats, state records show, a total that has increased by 10,736 in the past year. While that exceeds the Republicans’ 4.74 million, the GOP has registered more than twice as many — almost 24,000 — in the same period.
One of the state’s prominent Democrats, Mr. Gillum, has vowed to help the voter registration drive through a network of PACs and nonprofits, but his moves have seen poor results, according to recent reports.
For one thing, federal investigations into possible corruption that occurred in Tallahassee during Mr. Gillum’s administration remain open, and, for another, the various organizations with which he is associated have been making curious money moves, as outlined last week in the Florida Politics blog.
Mr. Gillum has both a political committee, Forward Florida, and a registered nonprofit corporation of which he is the director, Forward Florida Action, according to state records. As a 501(c)4 organization, Forward Florida Action can raise unlimited funds and is not required to disclose donors or contributions.
Since the nonprofit incorporated in April, the Forward Florida political committee has shifted $500,000 to it, basically one-third of the money raised by the committee. That was in addition to $158,000 the PAC contributed to his campaign, the report noted.
The committee also paid $70,000 to the Pittman Law Firm, a Tallahassee firm run by Sean Pittman, one of the figures at the center of the federal investigations.
Mr. Gillum and his groups did not respond to requests for comment.
“One thing is for sure, the Democrats know they have to do a better job,” Ms. MacManus said, citing also a tendency for Democrats to rely on national organizations that sometimes fail to create a winning state-specific message.
Other experts say recent electoral results prove the Democrats must change and that their organizational skills have been lacking.
“The Democrats definitely need to do something if they want to be competitive and actually start winning some of these statewide elections again,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
When Barack Obama carried Florida in 2008 and 2012, he did so bypassing the state’s partisan infrastructure.
“He was able to win Florida because he had his own voter registration team and literally hundreds of paid people all around the state in 2008, and somehow kept that together for four years,” Mr. Jewett said.
Ironically, Democrats today are taking a page from the GOP handbook, one compiled during the decades Republicans spent in Florida’s political wilderness. Democrats grew complacent during their dominance and haven’t been able to regain it. While the party has pulled within one in terms of Florida’s congressional delegation, its gains in state politics have been marginal, Mr. Jewett said.
“Really for more than 20 years the Republicans have had it all,” he said, referring to the legislature and governor’s mansion.
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