Val Demings’ withdrawal from the Orange County Mayoral Race was a shock to most observers of Florida politics. It seems all so surreal because after years of misfiring Democrats had actually landed a highly-touted recruit for a big race in the state of Florida. Local Democrats had recruited a superstar, someone capable of commanding tremendous interest both on the grassroots level and in terms of fundraising.
Theresa Jacobs, like her predecessors Rich Crotty and Mel Martinez, faced weak Democratic opposition in the past and had won some crossover Democratic support. However scandals including the infamous textgate affair as well as several policy initiatives had progressives licking their chops about the possibility of defeating Jacobs in 2014. This particular office is non-partisan, thanks largely to the first occupant Linda Chapin who was a moderate Democrat then serving in a conservative Republican county. But since 1998, we have seen Republicans hold the office with little opposition thanks to the non-partisan nature of the elections, low-turnout summer primaries and a weak Democratic commitment to running strong. 2014 was supposed to be different.
Identifying a top-tier candidate was a priority of Orange County’s progressive community and the Florida Democratic Party. That candidate, Val Demings, was at least on paper a perfect fit – the former Orlando Police Chief who gave Congressman Dan Webster all he could handle in a Republican leaning district in 2012. The wife of the elected Sheriff of Orange County, name ID was not a problem. Since Jacobs had become connected with scandal and the county’s progressives were better organized than ever, the opportunity seemed ripe for a prestigious Democratic victory.
But as we now know, it was not be. What appeared to be setting up as one of the highest-profile and most watched races in the state never really began. But why?Various rumors and theories have floated in the week since Demings withdrawal. What has become obvious from talking to multiple local sources is that Demings own tenor and that of her campaign had changed during the course of the race. The reason appears to be the over-reliance on political consultants, pollsters and vendors associated with both the state and national Democratic parties. Demings started out her campaign early this year as an agent of change, concerned about the plight of working class families in the county as well as being concerned by the scandals associated with the county government. Grassroots energy and support were initially quite high. The State Party made the race a priority and not only donated generously to Demings campaign but gave her office space in Orlando.
But in time the consultants that had been brought into the effort, many Washington DC based national Democratic Party associated operatives, re-positioned the candidate. Coinciding with this were the efforts of some Florida-based operatives who work closely with the state party and statewide Democratic candidates to move Demings from a reform minded progressive candidate to something in the middle of the political spectrum. Much of the energy for the candidate and campaign began to dissipate. Also of note, in February both Demings and the FDP received generous contributions from Disney, contributions that some local activists feel may have begun to push Demings campaign into a different posture. Whether this is in fact the case can be debated but no doubt exists the campaign began pushing in another direction around this time.
Despite the generous support the FDP provided the candidate, the campaign moved from party donated office space to an expensive location elsewhere in town. Under the direction of the consultants, particularly those from the national party, the focus on grassroots was shifted to TV and Direct Mail. By early May the campaign was looking to spend upwards of $1,000,000 on local TV buys. Much like the Alex Sink Special Election where voter turnout and activation would be a key, this election with an August Primary would have to be a turnout war. But the national consultants felt that massive and largely untargeted TV buys in a media market that stretches from The Villages to Palm Bay and from Celebration to Flagler Beach would be an efficient use of the money the candidate raised. The logic of this strategy is inane. Much like the Sink campaign it would have almost certainly led to failure.
As grassroots enthusiasm for the candidate began to wane thanks to the consultant driven nature of the campaign, Jacobs appeared to be firmly in control of the race. While the one public poll that showed a 15 point lead for the incumbent was probably a bit skewed, realistically Demings was going to have a very difficult time making a real race of it. Additionally, many leading money people locally had made deals already with the incumbent Mayor before Demings got in the race and while her fundraising was not terrible (she raised nearly $250,000 before dropping out) this race required well over a million dollars before July the way the consultants were running it, and unfortunately Demings was well behind on this score.
Ultimately the lessons of the Demings campaign much like the failed Alex Sink Special Election is that political consultants, DC operatives and even some Florida based vendors are not the best strategists for what are essentially local campaigns. Tip O’Neill once said all politics is local, but much like the failed Sink Campaign, Democrats forgot that in a big way in this race. Despite the best efforts of many leaders in the party and progressive movement in Orange County to control the narrative they were overwhelmed by slick and well-connected operatives.
So once again the Democrats have managed to turn a big opportunity into a big mess. But Democrats in Orange County have noted the lessons and we can be rest assured many of these mistakes will not be repeated if local forces are kept in control of the destiny of a local office (albeit one with statewide and even national implications. Let’s not forget Mel Martinez used this office to become a Cabinet Member and a US Senator, skipping state office or the US House in the process).
What we have learned from Demings aborted campaign coming so rapidly after the Alex Sink Special Election debacle should give Democrats across the state pause when consultants and vendors come to Florida in the fall professing they have all the answers that will lead towards a victory.