Florida Democrats grapple with uncertain future after midterm wipeout
Democrats are facing an existential crisis in Florida after a red wave engulfed the nation’s once-premier battleground state.
The scale of the Democratic wipeout in Florida is hard to understate. Tuesday’s elections saw Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) win landslide victories and Republicans clinch supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. For the first time since Reconstruction, no Democrat will hold statewide office in Florida.
The election results have only intensified the infighting and soul-searching that have long roiled the state Democratic Party. The question on many Democrats’ minds now isn’t whether they can mount a comeback in the next few years, but whether they can even remain a viable political force.
“We need to get our s— together,” one Florida Democratic operative said. “But that involves an element of bringing in new faces and proving that we can be competitive — that at least we’re building sustainable infrastructure. That just didn’t happen this cycle. We need a 10-to-15-year plan.”
Florida’s transformation into a red state has been in the making for years. Democrats have been locked out of the governor’s mansion since former President Clinton was in the White House, and the party’s once-yawning voter registration had been eroding for years.
In 2008, when former President Obama carried Florida for the first time, there were about 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. As of Sept. 30, 2022, there were roughly 300,000 more registered Republican voters than Democratic voters.
Even before Tuesday, Democrats were already pointing fingers in anticipation of a tough election night. Several party members had called on Manny Diaz, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, to resign after the midterms. Diaz has reportedly signaled that he has no plans to leave his post.
Diaz, meanwhile, released a memo on Tuesday in which he called out national Democratic groups for spending so little in Florida this year — about $1.35 million in 2022 compared to nearly $59 million in 2018.
But party members and operatives say that Democrats’ political woes in Florida are the result of a complex and longstanding web of factors.
In conversations with The Hill, half a dozen Florida Democrats pointed to vulnerabilities ranging from the incompetence of party consultants and apathy of national Democratic groups to the party’s aging and underfunded political infrastructure.
“I think the party needs new leadership, but the right leadership,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, who has called on Diaz to resign.
“Reflexively, including myself, our instinct is to go after the party chair because the party chair is the leader and the buck does stop with them,” he continued. “But what also needs to be addressed is there is a whole underclass of consultants that basically use the party as their own personal ATM.”
Kennedy also pointed to what he said was Democrats’ lack of a long-term strategy in Florida. Republicans, by contrast, had spent years building a permanent political presence in key communities, especially in heavily Hispanic parts of the state.
“We need to have more presence in the community. We need to have field offices. We need to have permanent offices in our core areas where we’re not just organizing a few months before an election. The Republicans have been doing this for years.”
State Sen. Annette Taddeo (D), who lost a bid this week for Florida’s Miami-based 27th Congressional District, offered a similar diagnosis of her party’s challenges, telling The Hill that Democrats had failed to do the “grunt work” necessary to build a winning coalition.
“We know what needs to be done, because we did it in ‘08 and ‘12 with Obama,” she said. “It takes grunt work. And the grunt work is registering voters. The grunt work is being present in minority communities all the time, not just during an election. The grunt work is building infrastructure, the party from the ground up.”
“The Republicans copied the playbook of Obama in Florida: Be present all the time, register voters, do things to help them,” Taddeo added.
Indeed, that strategy appeared to pay dividends for Republicans on Tuesday. DeSantis and Rubio both managed to carry Miami-Dade and Osceola Counties, two heavily Hispanic areas that have in the past been sources of Democratic strength in the state.
DeSantis also won another Democratic-leaning county, Palm Beach County, while Rubio came within 2,100 votes of scoring a victory there.
Ultimately, DeSantis defeated his Democratic rival, former Rep. Charlie Crist, by a staggering 19-point margin, while Rubio vanquished his opponent, Rep. Val Demings (D), by more than 16 percentage points. By comparison, Rubio won his last election by fewer than 8 points. DeSantis barely eked out a win in 2018 when he beat Democrat Andrew Gillum by less than half a percentage point.
“I knew the margins were going to be big,” one Florida Democratic strategist said. “I was expecting maybe a 6-or-7-point win for DeSantis. Maybe 5 points for Rubio. But 19? I think everybody was surprised by that.”
The election results offered a stunning split screen to other battleground states. While Democrats headed into the midterms facing a brutal political environment and the threat of losing their House and Senate majorities, the party largely outperformed expectations. Several tight races remain too close to call, but what’s clear is that the so-called red wave that Republicans long predicted failed to materialize across most of the country.
There were also more immediate challenges for Florida Democrats. DeSantis, a star among conservatives nationally and prospective Republican presidential candidate, drastically outraised Crist throughout the campaign, pulling in more than $200 million for his reelection bid. Crist, on the other hand, raised about $31 million.
At the same time, Democrats struggled to effectively counter Republicans’ messaging on high-profile issues like the COVID-19 pandemic. DeSantis’s laissez-faire approach to the outbreak and defiance of federal health officials was a major factor in political rise in the first place.
“There was no Democratic campaign at all,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster whose firm advised Obama’s successful Hispanic outreach efforts in his two presidential campaigns. “It wasn’t that they started six months before the election. They weren’t campaigning six weeks before the election.”
Recalling the past decade in Florida politics, Amandi said that Democrats have become increasingly complacent following Obama’s 2012 win in the state, saying the party “went to celebrate Obama’s second inauguration and never came back.”
But it was the 2018 midterm elections that “broke the Democrats’ backs.” While Democrats made some modest gains in Florida that year, they fell short in the contest for governor and saw former Sen. Bill Nelson, a three-term incumbent, ousted by Rick Scott, the state’s Republican governor at the time.
Meanwhile, Democrats swept elections nationwide, picking up 41 House seats and recapturing the majority in the lower chamber.
“Florida was the only state in 2018 that didn’t succumb to the blue wave,” Amandi said. “And I think for a lot of national donors and national Democrats, it was a bitter defeat that led to pulling up the stakes in the state for bluer pastures.”
The 2022 midterms, he said, solidified Florida’s status as a red state.
Some Democrats, however, said there’s at least some reason to be optimistic, even as they conceded that it would take years to fully rebuild their political operations in Florida.
With former President Trump expected to announce a 2024 White House bid early next week and DeSantis seen as a potential — if not likely — Republican challenger, Democrats say there’s an opportunity to break through in Florida amid possible GOP infighting.
“Chaos is a ladder,” Kennedy said. “Between Trump and DeSantis fighting, DeSantis maybe running for president, a lot can happen.”
Taddeo also said that there’s interest from top Democrats in helping the party reassert itself in the wake of the midterms. She fielded a call on Friday from Bill Clinton, who offered his help in rebuilding Democrats’ crumbling political infrastructure in Florida. Still, she noted, there are years of work ahead.
“It’s got to be a long-term plan,” Taddeo said. “What do we think we can do in two years? What do we think we can do in four? We need goals for two, four, six, eight, 10 years. This isn’t going to turn around overnight.”