Florida Democrats mired in division, debt ahead of 2022

Florida Democrats are engulfed in turmoil, facing a mix of internal divisions and financial woes that threaten to hobble the party as it prepares to take on Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in 2022.

The challenges for Florida Democrats are clear. The party has suffered disastrous electoral losses in recent years at both the state and federal levels and now finds itself in a dire financial situation.

A year-end report filed on Sunday with the Federal Election Commission showed the Florida Democrats’ federal entity with less than $61,000 in the bank and more than $868,000 in debt.

Underscoring the party’s financial pitfall was the revelation this week that it had allowed its employees’ health insurance to lapse at the end of November, leaving staffers unknowingly without coverage.

The party’s new chairman, Manny Diaz, who was elected to his post just a month ago, said last week that the party’s insurance policy has been reinstated and that claims filed during the lapse in coverage will be paid.

But the recent events demonstrate just how difficult it will be to turn around Democrats’ prospects in Florida ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when the party hopes to oust DeSantis and Rubio and recapture two South Florida House seats lost to Republicans in November.

“It’s still early, but this isn’t where we want to be,” one Florida Democratic operative said. “It’s one thing to say we had one bad cycle. But it’s getting hard to make the case that the party can pull itself together, because it keeps making the same mistakes.”

Democrats suffered two high-profile defeats in Florida in 2018 with former Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D) loss to Sen. Rick Scott (R) and DeSantis’s victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race.

Those losses were softened somewhat by a pair of Democratic victories in Florida’s 26th and 27th congressional districts, as well as a five-seat gain in the GOP-controlled state House.

But the 2020 elections proved upsetting for Florida Democrats.

Democrats lost their grip on Florida’s 26th and 27th districts and ceded five state House seats to Republicans. All the while, Democrats spent more than $100 million to defeat former President Trump in Florida, an ultimately unsuccessful mission that has left donors reluctant to invest in a notoriously expensive state that has given Democrats little to brag about recently.

Now, the party finds itself entering 2021 in dire financial straits.

At the top of Florida Democrats’ list of priorities in 2022 is defeating DeSantis and Rubio.

But neither race will be easy. Republicans are riding high after a successful 2020 election cycle and the state GOP is flush with cash, reporting having $5.8 million in the bank at the end of 2020. What’s more, Trump is now living at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, giving Republicans a powerful surrogate in the state.

Several Democrats are already seen as potential challengers to DeSantis, including state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat currently serving in a statewide elected office, and state Rep. Anna Eskamani. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), himself a former Florida governor, has also said that he is open to another gubernatorial run.

The list of potential challengers to Rubio, however, is less clear, and one Democratic official acknowledged that the Florida senator was “intimidating to take on” given his strong support among South Florida Latinos — a group that Democrats underperformed with in 2020 — and the fact that midterm elections tend to draw lower voter turnout.

At the same time, the Florida Democratic Party’s current cash crunch is hard to ignore. The health care debacle was only the latest in a series of financial hiccups for the party.

The party came under scrutiny last year after it accepted at least $780,000 in loans intended for small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program. Only after those loans were disclosed by the Small Business Administration did the party announce that it would return the money.

The financial difficulties prompted five Democratic officials in the state on Friday to call for the resignations of top party officials, including former Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, who was recently elected to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

“As increasing evidence is uncovered regarding serious financial mismanagement by the previous administration of the Florida Democratic Party (FDP), we are concerned that officers from that same administration were either reelected or elected to new leadership positions within our Party,” an open letter demanding the resignations reads.

“We demand the immediate resignations of at least those directly implicated in the mismanagement of the Party’s financial affairs,” it continues, naming Rizzo, Florida Democratic Party Secretary Casmore Shaw and treasurer Francine Garcia.

The letter — signed by DNC members Nadia Ahmad, Thomas Kennedy and Sanjay Patel, as well as Leon County Democratic Party Chairman Erik David and state committee member Nicole Soza — also demands a “complete audit of FDP finances” “to ensure no other mismanagement occurred.”

Diaz, who was endorsed for the chairmanship by former New York City mayor and Democratic mega-donor Michael Bloomberg, has publicly acknowledged that the party’s finances are in rough shape and has vowed to rebuild.

In an interview with the news site Florida Politics last week, he said he knew going into his new job “that things were going to be bad. I just didn’t think they were this bad.”

Kennedy acknowledged that Diaz and his team “have their work cut out for them” as the new chair looks to replenish the party’s coffers and calm simmering tensions among its members. He said that convincing donors to underwrite expectedly expensive campaigns in 2022 would likely prove difficult, given the current shape of the party’s finances.

“They inherited a mess,” Kennedy told The Hill. “They should be busy fundraising, starting to hire and rehire. Instead of focusing on that fully, they have to focus on this health care bullshit and a bunch of other bad news.”

“It’s hard to judge, but the reality is, when you inherit an organization that’s $800,000 in debt, it’s difficult to get donors on board.”

Some Florida Democrats have placed much of the blame for the party’s financial troubles on Rizzo and the party’s former executive director, Juan Peñalosa, who resigned last month shortly after Diaz was elected chair.

In a statement last week, Peñalosa pushed back on the criticism. The party’s health care plan, he said, had not been canceled and the insurance “bills were paid.”

He added that it’s no surprise the party burned through its cash in a competitive election cycle and that its outgoing leadership had offered to call donors “to help refill the coffers” in the wake of 2020. Peñalosa said that Diaz has not taken him up on that offer.

“The fact that FDP exhausted its resources after a tough election was not a secret. When Terrie and I came to FDP, we also inherited a large staff and broke party, but we raised $$$ needed to prevent layoffs, so I know it can be done,” Peñalosa said.

Some party officials, however, are demanding that party leadership hold a state committee meeting quickly to discuss the party’s financial and strategic challenges. Kennedy, the DNC member, said that there are enough votes to force a special meeting, adding that one of their goals is to establish an audit and oversight committee to review the party’s finances.

“We want to look at the books, report on the financial health of the organization and we want to hear a plan on how we’re going to stabilize the finances,” Kennedy said. “We just fired two-thirds of the staff. So we want to know what’s the plan going forward? What’s it going to look like?”

Tags Bill Nelson Charlie Crist Donald Trump florida democrats division debt 2022 race election ron desantis marco rubio governor senate republicans gop challenge Marco Rubio Michael Bloomberg Ron DeSantis
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