How the Democrats lost Florida

RATHER THAN simply making America great again Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, is bent on making America Florida. That rallying-call should send shivers down any Democrat’s spine. In a state that used to swing, today Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers, control both Senate seats and every statewide executive office. The policies passed in its statehouse this session were some of the most hardline in the country.

In February Mr DeSantis called the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) a “dead, rotten carcass on the side of the road”. His diagnosis was not all wrong. The party that delivered two consecutive wins for Barack Obama is now in disarray, its foot soldiers dejected. “You can put Jesus Christ on the ballot, but if he’s got a ‘D’ next to his name no one in Florida will vote for him,” says one party strategist.

This is an important change, given Florida’s 30 electoral-college votes. Before 1996, the state leaned Democratic. Even after the Republicans flipped the state legislature that year, the Democrats remained competitive for a decade. But the blue wave that washed over much of America in the 2018 midterms—House Democrats clinched 10m more votes nationwide than Republicans, the largest-ever vote margin—missed Florida. And four years later, the Democrats got a thrashing in the state. Mr DeSantis was re-elected governor by 19 points and won Miami-Dade County, a Democratic stronghold that no Republican candidate for governor had carried in 20 years. The chair of the FDP resigned.

How did Florida become such hostile territory for Democrats? One partial explanation could be that more Republicans than Democrats moved to the state when covid-19 hit. Of the 394,000 voters who flocked to Florida between March 2020 and November 2022—adding to the state’s 14m—49% were Republicans and 25% Democrats.

Yet there is more to the story, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. Existing voters are also ditching the Dems: in the year to July 2022, nearly three-quarters of those who switched parties did so to become Republican. And Democrats struggle to get voters to show up to the polls. The four urban counties that Mr DeSantis flipped in 2022 had a higher share of registered Democrats than Republicans. Yet a greater share of those Republicans voted.

The FDP’s woes are also self-inflicted. In 2012, after the second Obama win, state Democrats felt they had picked the lock of Florida. A nimble, data-driven campaign full of Spanish-language ads and carefully chosen surrogates allowed Mr Obama to capture nearly half Florida’s Cuban-American vote, propelling him to victory in the state.

But when the Democrats jetted off to Washington to toast their win they never returned, says Fernand Amandi, a consultant for the campaign. Door-knocking and voter-registration drives came to a halt. Hillary Clinton, who lost Florida in 2016, swapped bus tours in rural swing counties for big rallies in safe cities. And leadership chaos distracted the party. Since 2014 the FDP has been through five chairpeople. Allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women ousted one; misuse of federal funds another. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, Florida’s Democrats had a 260,000 voter-registration edge on Republicans. The Republicans now have half a million more voters (see chart).

The more Democrats lost, the harder it became to find good people to stand. While Republicans were building a sophisticated candidate-recruitment apparatus, Democrats looked to volunteers. They ended up with worse candidates. Progressives rallied around Andrew Gillum, the first black nominee for governor in Florida, who lost to Mr DeSantis by just 0.4 percentage points in 2018. After he retreated from politics, cops found Mr Gillum in a hotel bathroom with methamphetamine and an overdosed male escort. He was later, unrelatedly, indicted for wire fraud. With a better candidate, Democrats could surely have stunted Mr DeSantis’s ascent.

The party’s negligence also alienated donors. John Morgan, a well-known lawyer who has given many millions to Democrats, sees no one in the party capable of winning statewide office in Florida. “My money is deep, deep in my pockets right now,” he says. Nor is the national party chipping in. In last year’s midterm campaign national Democratic groups spent less than $2m in Florida, down from nearly $60m in 2018.

Republicans—both in and out of state—skilfully taunt Democrats with red-meat issues, forcing them to defend progressive stances. That can play especially poorly in Florida. Fighting anti-wokism and drag-queen bullying is a losing strategy in a state with hefty shares of older whites and religious Hispanics, says Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach.

So is promoting gun control. An analysis by the Lincoln Project, a never-Trump group, found that one-third of concealed-carry permit-holders in Florida were registered Democrats. Even among young voters, who tend to be more progressive, the party is getting it wrong. Val Demings and Charlie Crist, losing Democratic candidates for senator and governor respectively in 2022, campaigned heavily on abortion. But polling shows that Gen-Z Floridians care far more about climate policy.

To rebuild in Florida, the Democrats will probably have to acknowledge that they have lost the culture wars and focus on the economy instead. Since 2015 the cost of property insurance has risen by nearly 60% in Florida; today Tampa and Miami have the highest inflation rates in the country. An economy-first message helped Donna Deegan, the Democratic candidate, win Jacksonville’s mayoral race in May. Talk of restoring roads and boosting small businesses resonated with some of the voters who had given Mr DeSantis a 12-point victory six months earlier. That is the kind of campaigning Democrats need to stop the bleeding, says Steve Schale, a Tallahassee strategist.

Can Florida’s Democrats resurrect themselves? In July Nikki Fried, the new FDP chair, raised spirits by announcing that the party would devote $1m to voter registration. The Florida Leadership Council, a group created by ex-politicians to scout for and train clever young Democrats, is getting off the ground. And some strategists think Florida’s pending six-week abortion ban could drive Democrats to the polls in 2024. But without more money it will be hard to win races and woo back donors. If change comes at all, it is unlikely to come quickly.

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