Democrats are grappling with how to carve a path forward in Florida after disappointing losses in two high-profile races that once fueled the party’s hopes of expanding its political footprint in the Sunshine State.
The defeats suffered by gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonHow will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? Biden to talk Russia, anti-corruption with Ukraine's president Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos wages lawfare on NASA and SpaceX MORE, both by ultra-close margins, have left Democrats struggling to point to one silver bullet that could have turned the tide of the races.
Multiple strategists and party operatives in the state suggested that Democrats had failed to organize early and effectively enough. They also said the party needs to mount a more sustained voter outreach and registration effort, particularly months or years ahead of elections.
Others said that Republicans’ willingness to quickly mount negative — and enormously expensive — campaigns also created outsize obstacles that put Democrats at a disadvantage.
Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster, said Democrats had all but abandoned the Florida playbook given to them by former President Obama, who won the state in both his 2008 and 2012 White House bids.
That playbook hinged on more robust outreach to Latino voters and an effort to narrow vote margins in more rural parts of the state, Amandi said, adding that Democrats effectively “abandoned that approach in 2010 and 2014, and now again in 2018.”
“From the Democratic perspective in Florida, it’s no longer a question of a reassessment. They need to completely blow up the model and start anew,” said Amandi, who served as an adviser to Rep.-elect Donna Shalala, one of only two Democrats who flipped a GOP-held House seat in Florida.
“It becomes a complete overhaul,” he continued. “It means asking themselves: What are they doing wrong and why do they keep making the same mistakes?”
Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee who was cast as a new face for the party, fell to Republican Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisCalifornia dreaming did not become reality for Republicans Florida landlord requiring proof of vaccinations from tenants Anthrax was the COVID-19 of 2001 MORE by fewer than 33,000 votes.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a dean of Florida politics and the only Democratic statewide office holder, was edged out by term-limited Gov. Rick Scott after a nail-biting hand recount that showed the two separated by just over 10,000 votes.
The party’s long-touted blue wave in the House also didn’t crash into Florida like it did other states. The House seats Democrats flipped were both in blue-tinged Miami-Dade County.
And they netted only six seats in the state House, which remains firmly in the GOP’s grip, though Democrat Nikki Fried handed her party a key win this month after she edged out Republican Matt Caldwell by fewer than 7,000 votes in the race for agriculture commissioner, making her Florida’s sole statewide-elected Democrat.
At the same time, DeSantis’s and Scott’s victories were seen by Republicans as a key test of President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE’s political strength heading into his 2020 reelection bid.
The president won Florida narrowly in 2016, and the state is expected to play a crucial role in deciding whether he will serve a second term in the White House.
Scott drastically outspent Nelson in the Senate race, pumping more than $51 million of his personal fortune into his campaign.
As a result, the two-term governor hit the airwaves early with a barrage of ads attacking Nelson and casting him as a career politician with little to show for his time in Washington.
Meanwhile, DeSantis tied himself closely to Trump in a bid to turn out the coalition of mostly white, conservative voters that handed the president a win in 2016.
Most of those votes came from the large rural and exurban stretches between Florida’s metropolitan areas.
But exit polling from the elections also suggests that Republicans made some gains among Latino voters in Florida.
Those surveys showed DeSantis won 44 percent of the Latino vote and Scott carried 45 percent — larger shares than Trump took two years earlier and not far behind the 54 percent won by Gillum and Nelson.
Amandi, the Democratic pollster, said the Republicans’ “overperformance” among those voters made a difference.
“[Democrats] have to maximize and get as much as 65 percent of the Hispanic vote and also have them turn out in great numbers,” Amandi said. “Republicans were able to keep the margin at 10 points this year, even if Democrats won the Hispanic vote.”
Several Democratic operatives and strategists also expressed frustration with what one described as the party’s “10 county strategy,” focusing the brunt of its political force on a handful of Democratic-leaning areas in and around the state’s large urban centers and college towns.
In a memo published last week, Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who directed Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, criticized the notion “that Florida can be won entirely in a few corners, or that Florida is just a turnout state.”
In the race for agriculture commissioner, he noted, Fried outperformed Gillum at the margins in 38 counties.
While that accounts for only a small fraction of the total votes cast, Fried ultimately won her race.
“In other words, losing by a little less in a lot of places added up to the difference between winning by a little, and losing by a little,” Schale wrote.
Despite Nelson’s and Gillum’s losses, several Democrats noted that the races were among the closest in recent memory. Both triggered automatic recounts under state law, and final tallies showed the two Democrats trailing their respective opponents by less than half a point.
Kevin Cate, an adviser to Gillum, rejected the notion that there was a “secret silver bullet” that could have pushed his candidate across the finish line.
He said that the progressive gubernatorial candidate experienced “the most negative campaign in Florida history,” arguing that DeSantis and Republicans resorted to “scare tactics and bottom-of-the-barrel rhetoric” to rally their conservative base and tarnish Gillum’s reputation.
Cate argued that Democratic success in Florida will ultimately depend on whether the party nominates “unapologetic, progressive” candidates, like Gillum, capable of energizing voters.
“I think any of the blame-game punditry is just something for people to talk about,” Cate said. “Candidates shouldn’t be measured based on what neighborhood will turn out more noncollege educated white people. They should be judged based on their vision and their accomplishments and their narrative.”