Florida House Democrats – What is the plan for 2014?

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TFS Deputy Editor Ryan Ray contributed to this story

The word coming from many in the Florida Democratic Party is that 2014 will be at best a “hold” cycle when it comes to State House seats. While the dynamics of this particular election year are currently not favorable to the Democratic cause, the party is dramatically underrepresented in the lower chamber of the legislature based on recent electoral trends and the most recent reapportionment maps.

The excuse of reapportionment has been given time and again by Democrats in explaining poor performances at the legislative level. While the State Senate map remains problematic for the Democrats much as it was in the 2002-2012 period, the House map was drawn just about as fairly as you could imagine and that is why we have chosen to focus on the House in this analysis.

The 2012 election cycle was marked by missed opportunities by Florida’s Democrats at the state level.  Briefly reviewing the 2012 cycle, several seats that were beyond reach were targeted while others that could have been flipped with minimal effort were ignored. Included in those seats that could have been flipped with minimal party effort were HD-41 (Wood), HD-59 (Spano), HD-114 (Fresen), and HD-115 (Bileca). Several other seats that were on the party’s radar were underfunded or mishandled.

Mark Danish’s victory in HD-63 took place without the Democratic party’s direct help and largely on a low budget, with volunteers staffing the campaign. Danish’s district is instructive. When the new redistricting maps were approved, Republican Rep. Shawn Harrison was thrown into one of the most difficult seats a Republican could be asked to defend. Yet the party didn’t show a great deal of interest in the seat and Danish relied mostly on amateurs to craft a winning campaign strategy.

Candidate recruitment was also flawed in 2012. The Pinellas County seats that were targeted and lost (HD-66, HD-67, HD-69) suffered from poor campaigns and candidate recruitment. The party did wisely intervene late in Carl Zimmerman’s race (HD-65) but his success has largely hinged on his deep local ties, not help from Tallahassee.

As we approach the heart of the 2014 cycle, worrying signs have appeared that the Democrats again lack the ambition or understanding of the map to be competitive in House elections.

In this emerging era of straight-ticket voting, the old Democratic performance numbers that often guided targeting in the cycles between 2000 and 2006 are less relevant than ever. Top of the ticket performance and voter turnout have become, in the Obama era, reliable indicators as to how districts will perform at the state legislative level. Voter drop-off may occur this cycle however because of the weakness of the Democratic ticket in at least two Cabinet races.

Looking at demographic trends, shifts in top of the ticket voting, and general Democratic performance it is possible to theorize if the Democrats expanded the map and forced the Republicans to play defense in several districts, this election cycle could get interesting.

While the Dems have their usual list of targets, some of which are quite worthy, expanding the map could ensure the party comes back with a formidable enough number of members to impact the debate next Session whether or not a Democrat wins the governorship. Many affiliated with the party seem to be putting all their eggs in the “we need to win the governorship” basket, trying to move the earth underneath based entirely on this premise. While defeating Rick Scott would certainly be a boon it is not be all and end all in any state election cycle.

To this point it appears the priorities of the FDP are to protect incumbents and to target a limited number of Republican-held seats in southeast Florida and Pinellas County. The Gainesville area seat held by Rep. Keith Perry is also a possible target although the party seems to have made a hash of the recruiting process in that particular seat after making similar errors two years ago. Some of these errors are not on the state party – the vicissitudes of local politics in the area have become messy in the past few months. Nonetheless the fact remains that the strongest possible candidates have not been persuaded to run there.

(Nota bene on incumbent protection: a misconception about Rep. Carl Zimmerman’s weakness seems to have permeated the thinking among activists and operatives. In each of Rep. Zimmerman’s three races in his northern Pinellas County district against former Rep. Peter Nehr, he outperformed the top of the ticket by at least five points.)

House seats that have seemingly evaded serious discussion thus far are HD-27 (Santiago), HD-41 (Wood), HD-53 (Tobia), HD-59 (Spano), HD-66 (Ahern), HD-72 (Pilon), HD-83 (Harrell), HD-105 (Trujillo), HD-110 (Oliva), HD-115 (Bileca), HD-118 (Artiles) and HD-119 (Nunez).

By expanding the map and at least showing an effort publicly to target winnable seats, fundraising, morale and long-term infrastructure building all benefit.

The Republicans’ climb to a majority is instructive. For years and years the GOP didn’t field challengers against the majority of Democratic incumbents and while the state had a conservative bent, the GOP was unable to translate their success in Presidential and Congressional races into legislative success.

Then, very quickly over a few cycles, even as Florida as whole was shifting to the left, the Republicans began targeting seats and running candidates who would often times lose on the first go round. They would ensure that voters that supported Republicans for other offices got into the habit of voting for visible and decently funded Republicans for State House and State Senate. Then very quickly in three cycles where the Democrats did well at the top of ticket (1992, 1994 and 1996), the Republicans picked off legislative seats where the Democratic ticket was weak though winning statewide. The GOP took a small majority in both chambers. Then in the fourth cycle the Democrats were wiped out top to bottom (1998) and the GOP majorities were solidified and remain strong today. It essentially took the Republicans four cycles to go from the mid-40s in the House to the mid-70s.

This didn’t just happen. It occurred because the GOP in the late 1980s realized in order to be relevant legislatively they needed to start competing. It took a certain degree of long-term planning and a vision for several cycles. The Democrats on the other hand seem to want to go cycle to cycle, either in “hold on” mode, desperation mode or simply “we’ll take what comes our way” mode.  Though conservative currents prevailed nationally and throughout the South during the mid-to-late 1990s, in no state so progressive as Florida did the pendulum fail to swing back the other way so stubbornly.

The 2006 cycle was the last one where the Democrats actually effectively targeted House seats, envisioning the map before the campaign season began. What has occurred since is shifting priorities, tactical errors ( the Democrats tend towards crisis mode) and an unwillingness to appeal to the left of center. While we are heartened by some new voices on Bronough Street, our expectations must and will rise along with our demographic advantages and Governor Scott’s increasing negatives.

We hope 2014 is a different story, and with progressive leadership in Rep. Pafford, it certainly could be. The early returns, however, offer cold comfort.

13 comments

  1. Blue Dog Dem · ·

    Really really good analysis.

    I hope everyone in the Capitol and around the state reads this.

    By the way in the last redistricting the republicans drew between 53 and 56 dem leaning seats.

    Yet we are shouting from the roof when we hit 45.

    Low expectations = losses .

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  2. We have a decent candidate in H 72, Greg Para but no one to run against Boyd (H 72) or for the vacant H 74.

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    1. Thanks Adam. Hope all is well down in Sarasota.

      With regard to Boyd in 71 as well as Pilon (H-72) and the termed out Holder (H-74), points well taken. Makes me miss Fitzgerald.

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  3. Try harder · ·

    Great piece. Some great journalism here. Still not there yet though.

    However you were just scratching the surface about the ineptitude of the house victory operation and the Florida Democratic Party.

    It is late in the game as you know and fundraising is way off. I am told that the last FDP budget meeting the house campaigns led by house victory were unable to provide comprehensive budget numbers to the party as to what they would be spending this cycle. I also know that they have not actually develop a list of targets for this cycle.

    Half the caucus is being threatened by the leadership and the other half has no idea what it’s doing.

    Analysis here is sound and your references the past cycles are spot on. Still, you aren’t there yet in terms of actually exposing the rot that’s set in recent months.

    It is not all on the house leadership because the state party is incompetent but the current Hpuse leadership is too deferential to the state party in many ways.

    Keep digging. This is a great start to what should be a running series of articles on the subject.

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  4. Concerned Democrat · ·

    We are always in poorly planned crisis mode when it comes to legislative elections.

    well argued here but no real shock or new ground covered,

    same old same old is the theme.

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  5. glad you wrote this but none of this is news. everyone around town knows the dem house campaigns are a mess.

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  6. Fla Dem Insider · ·

    Actually this piece is accurate however it seems to imply that the current leadership is to blame. Those of us in the no realize it was the decision of House members to elect representatives Rouson as their leader that created all these tensions and all this trouble The cycle could in fact be totally lost because of it.

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    1. So it is all the fault of Rouson who was ousted over the summer?

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  7. Florida Voter · ·

    “Then, very quickly over a few cycles, even as Florida as whole was shifting to the left, the Republicans began targeting seats and running candidates who would often times lose on the first go round. They would ensure that voters that supported Republicans for other offices got into the habit of voting for visible and decently funded Republicans for State House and State Senate. Then very quickly in three cycles where the Democrats did well at the top of ticket (1992, 1994 and 1996), the Republicans picked off legislative seats where the Democratic ticket was weak though winning statewide. The GOP took a small majority in both chambers. Then in the fourth cycle the Democrats were wiped out top to bottom (1998) and the GOP majorities were solidified and remain strong today. It essentially took the Republicans four cycles to go from the mid-40s in the House to the mid-70s.”

    I have pointed this out time and again and consistently get told that it was a different time, reapportionment and whatever else. Those of us that were around then as you were know those was certainly factors that may explain the flipping of 8-10 seats but the rest were due to the Republicans under Tom Slade and Al Cardenes having a real vision and not trying to constantly manage expectations and crises from one cycle to the next.

    In terms of perspective, the flip happened overnight. At the start of the decade the Democrats were in the mid 70s and mid 20s House/Senate. By the end of the decade they were in the mid 40s and mid 10s House/Senate. This happened while as you said the Democrats were performing better at the top of the ticket then in the previous decade when the legislature was solidly D.

    Lessons to be learned. As far as the straight ticket voting, that is hurting us actually. We need to start delinking our issues from the national party and stop letting the Rs define us.

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  8. Campaign Consulting 101 · ·

    Let’s go through a few things here. Lots to like about this long narrative but some misconceptions that need to be cleaned up

    1- You say “While the State Senate map remains problematic for the Democrats much as it was in the 2002-2012 period, the House map was drawn just about as fairly as you could imagine and that is why we have chosen to focus on the House in this analysis.”

    This is wrong. If the map were fairly drawn considering Obama won the state by three points in 2008 and Sink lost by one in 2010 the map would have 62 or 63 Democratic seats. It is only “fair” compared to the totally gerrymandered Senate map. The analysis done by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald said they had drawn only 54 Democratic seats. This is far from fair. Yes it is better than the 45 we have or the 39 we had when the map was drawn but still it is a gerrymander.

    2- “The Gainesville area seat held by Rep. Keith Perry is also a possible target although the party seems to have made a hash of the recruiting process in that particular seat after making similar errors two years ago.”

    This seat may have another candidate soon. You need to be patient. You jumped the gun here. The other seats you list I am almost sure the party is stunned by. They have not done the simple match you have.

    3- Candidate recruitment was also flawed in 2012. The Pinellas County seats that were targeted and lost (HD-66, HD-67, HD-69) suffered from poor campaigns and candidate recruitment.

    The squnadering of party resoruces and poor planning were more responsible for this than candidate recruitment which was alright. Not saying candidate recruitment is always good but those seats it was decent. The campaigns themselves were poorly run.

    4- While we are heartened by some new voices on Bronough Street, our expectations must and will rise along with our demographic advantages and Governor Scott’s increasing negatives.

    The new voices on Bronough Street are all novices who lack the seasoning you or I or most of our readers have with regards to this stuff. Do not hold your breath. Well-meaning kids with stars in their eyes. That is about it.

    Overal this is a good article and hits some important points.

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  9. Dems in 14 · ·

    While we all know the author of this piece has a clear agenda a lot of the details in this article I must admit are accurate. We are behind in the house races for 2014 and have to chase things late. Why is that?

    The reasons are crystal-clear but are not articulated in this slanted article.

    1- We had a House Democratic leader designate that misled members and didn’t build up the party infrastructure properly. He was canned for good reason. In the time he was leader we lost months and months of potential planning. He failed to work well with the party in a way that it needed to be worked with.

    2- We have malcontents on all the party committees creating problems and impeding fundraising.

    3- We have local DECs that do nothing. They are the ones that should be recruiting candidate s and they are the ones that should be working the local angle. After all these are really local races.

    4- We have a lot of self absorbed Democratic members of the house most of whom supported the ousted leader. These members rather than playing as a team believe they know more than those strategists that have devised a plan. That’s why the plan is not being implemented. Now you say there is no plan but it’s because from the outside you cannot see the plan because the plan has been abandoned due to the negligence of certain members some of whom you might be talking to you.

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    1. Try harder · ·

      Dems in 14,

      Which department of the FDP do you work in? It stands without reason that you are a party employee.

      Like

  10. the old guy sitting on the green bench · ·

    Jose Feliciano said it best … Light my fire. Campaigns revolve around messaging. What is the unified message House Victory of the FDP is putting out for candidates to adopt and run on? Or is there a message? Two years ago some may recall the idea was to the Republican candidates to Scott’s apron strings. That I can recall very few if anyone used that strategy. Look at the record of Scott’s legislature and how those votes impact the man on the street.

    Well its time for me to kick back on my bench here on the Avenue and watch that pachyderms walk by.

    Like

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