I’ve been batting this one around in my head for a while and I’m not sure that my thoughts on it are fully-formed. So take this with a grain of salt, particularly since I’m wrestling with the eternal struggle in leftist politics of being open and honest — and possibly hurting my side — or of being strategic and not addressing things that I think are wrong, which might help, but also might hurt worse. Either way, I’m going to look briefly at a bunch of writing by others on the topic and then throw in some of my own thoughts.
The first article on the topic was from the mainstream media:
The state of Democratic politics in Florida is so incongruous it borders on surreal.
On any given week, thousands of Barack Obama volunteers in every corner of America’s biggest battleground state are working phone banks, attending training sessions and reaching out to deliver Florida’s 29 electoral votes to the president. In Tampa, Mitt Romney’s Florida campaign headquarters is shuttered.
But step inside Florida’s Capitol, where the levers of power are housed to shape statewide policies. There, Democrats are more invisible and irrelevant than ever: Not a single statewide office-holder and such small minorities in both chambers that Democrats can’t even use procedural moves to slow the Republican agenda.
Obviously, I’ve noticed this same phenomenon and in recent years, this situation has gotten worse, particularly in 2010.
How far has the Democratic Party fallen in Florida?
So far that it’s hard to name strong prospects to challenge Gov. Rick Scott, the country’s most unpopular governor, in 2014.
And when you ask veteran Florida political observers to name the state’s most influential Democrats, they’re apt to mention Bob Graham, who is 75 and has been out of office for seven years. Or Charlie Crist, who isn’t even a Democrat but could run for governor in 2014 as a lifelong Republican-turned independent-turned-Democrat.
More on Charlie Crist later…
The lack of Democratic influence in Tallahassee is all the more striking because the state remains as much a competitive battleground as ever. In the past five presidential elections Democrats won twice, Republicans twice, and one election ended in a virtual tie.
This year, Obama appears to have an even chance of winning Florida (the average of recent Florida polls shows Obama leading Romney by less than half a percentage point), Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is well-positioned to win a third term, and Democrats won two big prizes in 2011: mayoral offices in Jacksonville and Tampa.
Even with a nearly 500,000-voter registration advantage, Florida Democrats have hit rock bottom, and the path back to relevance looks anything but swift.
“The long-term demographics of Florida if you’re a Democrat are very bright. The state’s getting younger, more diverse, more urban,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale of Tallahassee. “But the difference between us and other swing states is that they have long-term political infrastructure in place. The challenge continues to be building that long-term infrastructure, and I think we’re going to struggle with that until we elect a governor.”
This shows why the problem is so baffling. It shouldn’t be like this. It makes no sense at first glance.
The roots of the Democrats’ woes go back decades. Complacent party leaders long accustomed to dominating state government focused on their own political campaigns and did little or nothing to build a bench of future leaders or a lasting political operation for groomed political newcomers to plug into. Meanwhile, the Florida GOP methodically recruited talented candidates and built a formidable, data-driven political machine.
A little quibble with this, a bench was built, but in recent years, it was squandered. Because of a lack of a bench in earlier years, candidates were thrust into running for higher offices than they should have sooner than they should have. This meant that candidates like Kendrick Meek, Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber ran for offices that they weren’t ready to run for and they didn’t win. With a few more years under their belts, they could’ve done much better and I expect to see Dave and Dan again.
“Ultimately Cabinet offices and the Governor’s Mansion are critically important in giving us something to organize our party around long term. But we would be making a mistake if we say let’s just focus all on this, because it’s not that simple. You’ve got to build a lot of other places, too. We ought to be out there and identifying the person we think could be running for office in 2016 and 2018, 2020. That’s what Tom Slade did,” said Smith, referring to the former GOP chairman who ushered his state party into majority status during the early 1990s.
I agree with this 100 percent. The problem is that I haven’t seen that Smith is actually doing this. That isn’t 100 percent fair on my part, because I’m not fully aware of all the things that the state party is up to these days, but if the fund raising and voter registration numbers are a sign of the party building that is being done — and they should be — then things don’t look great. (I will fully run a response from any party official unedited as a response to what they are working on).
Not only did some of the party’s brightest stars — Chief Financial Officer and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, and attorney general candidates and former state Sens. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres and Dan Gelber of Miami Beach — lose their statewide elections, but Republicans also swept into the handful of competitive districts. Moderate Democratic House members including Bill Heller and Janet Long of Pinellas County, and Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota lost their seats, most replaced by staunch conservatives.
“The way the districts were drawn really doomed us to be in the minority, but it’s more than that,” said state Rep. Kriseman. “A lot of elected Democrats, especially in this last election, did an absolutely horrible job identifying who we are, what we stand for, what we believe in and differentiating ourselves not only from the Republicans, but also from Washington.”
Kriseman is right here, although I think I knew very well what Gelber and Fitzgerald stood for, but the criticism is true of most Democrats, including most that won. It’s true of most Democrats running in this cycle, too. Two other major components led to the 2010 failures. The first was that many of the important campaigns were so poorly run that they frequently hurt more than helped — Sink, in particular, lost because of her campaign and personal failures. The other major component was the fact that the other side drastically outspent and outorganized Democrats. Republicans benefited from a synergy that Democrats didn’t even approach. In any given district, you could guarantee that the average voter was getting Republican contacts from five statewide campaigns, a congressional campaign, 3-5 legislative campaigns, numerous county and city campaigns, the state party and the local party. There might have been a few exceptions in some counties, but even in strong Democratic counties, you got these contacts. Not to mention massive amounts of Citizens United-inspired money flowing to the most vulnerable Republican campaigns. On the Democratic side, you’d be hard pressed to find more than, say, 10 counties that had a similar level of Democratic voter contact and probably fewer counties where the money between the two sides was even remotely competitive. Only the best candidates/campaigns or those in the safest districts would have any chance at victory in such an environment. 2012 will be better because of the Obama campaign, but because of the Republican assault on redistricting, it’ll be another tough year and I don’t see much being done to counter it.
But the lack of presence in Tallahassee has created a vicious circle: Democrats struggle to get their message out, because they have such a small voice in the Capitol; special interests don’t give to Democrats because they have so little influence; state government and the lobbying corps are teeming with experienced Republican political professionals, but savvy Democratic operatives often have to leave the state to make a living. Or they gravitate to the GOP.
This is all true. But there are alternate outlets to get things done — unions, progressive groups, etc. The party and candidates have to find new routes for getting the word out. It’s clear when you see the success of Awake the State, Pink Slip Rick, Occupy Wall Street’s Florida groups and others, that the energy and activists are out there. Now find a way to translate that to electoral, and then policy, success.
Florida voters in 2010 approved reforming the way legislative lines are drawn with an eye toward making more competitive and less gerrymandered districts. Democrats are optimistic they will gain seats in November, perhaps winning as many as 55 Florida House seats, but recruiting strong candidates is a challenge when nobody knows where the lines will end up after court fights.
This lack of launching campaigns because of the uncertainty over district lines is a massive problem and one engineered specifically by Republicans to have this effect. It’s a good, if evil, tactic and it’s working. Anyone who is a viable candidate who is considering running needs to bit the bullet and jump in now. If the candidates run, Democrats have a good chance to make some gains. People need to stop being timid and do what’s best for the state.
“The tea party iteration of the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that we have the opportunity to identify ourselves as a broader tent and more inclusive than the Republicans,” he said. “It’s happening right down to county commission level, this moving so far to the right. I mean Pinellas County stopping fluoride? Are you kidding me? I thought that went out with the John Birch Society.”
This sounds good, unless it means look for more moderate candidates and more centrist milquetoast people like Alex Sink and Bill Nelson who are the reason we’re in the hole we’re in now. It’s probably too soon to run a strong progressive statewide — at least with nobody high profile enough to get the job done at this point — but in local and congressional races, progressives have a good chance of doing well. A common misconception among political activists and some journalists — a misconception that baffles political scientists — is the false theory that most voters choose candidates based on the issues and ideology. That simply isn’t the case — according to decades of research — for more than 15 percent of the population or so. People vote on party identification and candidate characteristics way more than they vote on issues. A strong progressive that gets enough name recognition and has a personality and style that voters like would have no problem winning in most parts of the state. Voters are more turned off by candidates who won’t take a stand and won’t stand up for their values. Most voters will respect someone who has strong convictions but whom they disagree with more than they will fall in love with somebody who refuses to take a side or say what they believe. The sooner Democrats learn this, the better the policies of the state and national governments will be.
Inevitably, the bloggers jumped into the conversation, starting with The Spencerian:
What happens when you don’t think about how you’re going to market yourself in the future? You plan to fail, that’s what.
This is the exact problem for Florida Democrats — failing to adequately plan for anything more than the current election or session or whatever. We’re planning for things that the other side has already executed their strategy on. They’re working on the next one, we’re working on the one we’ve already lost.
First of all, memo to friends and contacts: if it’s not painfully obvious that Alex is running again, then I respectfully suggest you either quit politics, or start drinking (more). Because you don’t give interviews for articles like this one and not run for governor. (A terrible article for her, by the way, if only because it ended with former Florida GOP Chairman and State Senator John Thrasher assaulting us with a verbal boner at the idea of a Sink-Scott re-match: “That would be the best opponent we could ever have.”)
I am all too pleased to link to a Saint Petersblog post to finish up the Sink talk, finally: her foundation, or think tank, or whatever it is, sent out an email at 6:30 pm. On a Friday night. Who does that?
So if Sink is running again, she’s already starting off making the exact kind of mistakes that she (among others) made last time around. Not understanding the basics of political PR is a ridiculous mistake to be making as a third-time statewide candidate. On top of that, getting a bad article this early on is amateur hour stuff. And keep in mind, as bad as Sink’s campaign was, it wasn’t the worse. I talked to a statewide campaign in October 2010 that didn’t even have a statewide press list. I worked for a failed statewide campaign myself in 2010, but the problems with that campaign were with the preparedness and history of the candidate and the big picture strategies. The logistics of the campaign were very tight and to see other campaigns make mistakes that would’ve gotten someone fired on that failed campaign doesn’t give me a lot of hope. Bad campaigns is one of the biggest problems Florida Democrats have. Campaigning is a science and it’s one that has already been researched and we know how they work. Sure, coming up with a new wrinkle can help you, but if you are focused on trying to break new ground instead of mastering the basics, you are doomed to fail. And, with too many campaigns, people have to realize that “hope” is not a campaign strategy. Good slogan. Bad tactic.
To me, the bench problem is a lot bigger than just who’s going to run for Florida Governor in 2014.
I agree, in fact the governor’s race in 2014 is almost totally inconsequential in terms of the long-term viability of the party. The winner, if it’s a Democrat, will almost certainly be someone like Sink or Crist who has no interest — and probably no ability — to build the party long-term.
Hey, we Democrats are in a box, just like the national Republicans. I’m not saying there’s an easy — or quick — answer. But I sure hope someone is working on one.
I hope so, too, and I hear some things here and there about projects and plans that are being made. And some good people are involved in those plans, but I’m not sure how serious they are at this point or how seriously the party — both statewide and locally — will take those plans. There are some people working on some of the key problems we face, but are they doing enough and will it work. That none of us can say for sure.
Political Hurricane is a relatively new progressive blog in the state, but it might be the one producing the best commentary of late on a consistent basis. A few of their recent posts bear on this conversation:
As the end of the 2012 Regular Session approaches, Florida’s Democrats continue to send out press releases lamenting budget cuts and wrong priorities by the Republican majority. These public statements make for nice reading and are ideologically sound. But all too often in the past when the Democrats have been asked to stand and be counted they have taken a pass.
Giving speeches at local friendly Democratic groups and comments in the newspapers are all well and good, but all too often Democrats have been too chummy with Republicans as the majority party has gradually dismantled the safety net of programs and progressive structure of Florida Government over the past fourteen years.
The legacies of Reuben Askew, Bob Graham and the late Lawton Chiles have been squandered with the help of recent Democrats in favor of “me too” conservatism, coddling of home builders, developers, Realtors, and for a long period of time insurance companies. Term limited Democratic legislators were so terrified they wouldn’t go home with a passed bill they happily traded their votes on key GOP priorities for a guarantee of favorable treatments and in some cases guarantees of safe Legislative districts to run from in the future.
I couldn’t possibly agree with this more. One of the clear things we’ve seen in the last few years is that Floridians don’t feel that the party is standing up for them, so they are flocking to Occupy, Awake the State, Pink Slip Rick and other things that seem more relevant, more aggressive and more progressive. The party should’ve been the place all these things took place — the activist movements on the right dominate the Republican Party — but out of a fear of being labeled too progressive, the party kept activists at arms length and both sides suffered while the Republicans gained more control.
While the Legislative Democrats have been led by some competent leaders in the past ten years, most notably former Rep. Doug Wiles and former Rep. Dan Gelber, the majority of Democrats in the Legislature have at critical times acted like mindless sheep being led to the slaughterhouse. The number of House and Senate Democrats who voted for a Redistricting plan that ensured a GOP super majority for the past decade is staggering, and again in 2012 several Democratic State Senators sided with the GOP on the most basic of votes regarding reapportionment.
I don’t have anything to add to this, but it’s an incredibly important point that we should remind people of when the time is appropriate.
Other incidents of mindless cow towing to conservative priorities over the past fourteen years of GOP rule are too numerous to list in this post or on an entire page of this website. Liberal Democrats feel in many cases if they tow the progressive line on issues such as a woman’s right to choose, school prayer and gun control they are somehow great liberals. Yet continuing to give the state away to wealthy special interests while cutting social programs, health care and education isn’t liberal. It’s isn’t conservative either, but just plain wrong.
It’s also incredibly short-sighted if you want a career in left-wing politics. Or, you know, if you care about things like right and wrong.
So, if I am an average Florida voter and my choice is between Republican vs. Republican-lite, why would I pick Republican-lite? I might as well just pick the Republican. The candidate would be in the majority party, they actually agree with their party, and if both candidates are the same, why not pick the one that is actually closer to their party’s ideology compared to being at odds with their party? In addition, when we field Republican-lite candidates, it is harder to tell the difference between the two candidates. So, again, why would I vote for the Republican-lite candidate?
Also, when fielding a Republican-lite candidate, the likelihood a abandoning the voters on the left also becomes a problem. In this case, when the Democratic candidate is Republican-lite, that candidate is swapping tradition Democratic voters (who always vote Democratic) for more conservative voters that will vote Republican. This is exactly what happened in Florida during the 2010 election, and why we have Governor Scott and Congressman West…liberals didn’t vote because they saw no reason to vote. Therefore, the “moving to the right” philosophy doesn’t work. In fact, it hurts.
Very, very logical stuff here. And this was the battle that I continuously fought when I worked on the Meek campaign. I lost. The author, Dave Trotter, goes on to talk about how, regardless of policy, candidates need to win the battle of perceptions when it comes to voters and how radical a candidate seems. This is a key point that more Democrats need to understand. Winning elections is about money, professionalism and managing perceptions. Florida Democrats are mostly pretty bad at all of these things, which is why they lose so much. You can win an election if you win on two of those three measures. In 2010, Florida Democrats lost all three.
As Florida Democrats gear up for the 2012 Election cycle, the most talked about name in party and activist circles is not a current member of the party, but in fact a longtime former Republican officeholder. No question exists that Charlie Crist, wrongly counted out before by the political establishment of both parties, remains a heavyweight in Florida politics and the desperation of a party that hasn’t developed its own bench of quality candidates or a definitive statewide brand identity may lead to a shotgun marriage in time for the 2014 election.
I wish I could disagree with this analysis, but any real examination of the 2014 election shows that Crist would give Democrats the best chance to defeat Rick Scott of anybody that is currently being discussed. Crist has won before and has run at least two credible statewide campaigns (and one bad one). The alternatives are Sink who ran an atrocious campaign last time around and a better, but still mediocre campaign four years earlier and Smith who has never run a credible statewide campaign.
But as Meek’s early opposition researcher on Crist, I’ve read everything there is to read about the man and I can definitively say that he is not a progressive, he’s not a Democrat and he’s not on our side. Sure, he did a few good things during his term as governor, but not enough that he should be embraced. He has always been about his own political expediency. At this point, that favors Democrats, but who is to say how long that will last and what he might do down the road to set himself up for a national run again or something else. The point is he can’t be trusted. On top of that, he isn’t a progressive, so he has no inherent reason to do the right thing. That being said, he has a legit chance to be the governor in 2014, but either Sink or Smith would likely be a bigger ally to progressives (and certainly Democrats) and would likely be better governors, if they could beat Scott. Sink could, if she figured out how to run a campaign. I’m not sure Smith can get it done as a candidate. No matter what, any of them would be better than Scott and I would easily vote for them over him, but none of them is the future of the party and none of us should be building our future around them.