One of the things that made me exceptionally proud in the early months of 1995 was that Florida, unlike much of the country had resisted the Republican tide that swept the nation in November 1994. Sure, 1994 was a bad year relatively speaking for Florida Democrats losing eight State House seats, two Congressional seats and importantly a single State Senate seat that gave the GOP a 21-19 advantage in the chamber. But Governor Lawton Chiles had held off Jeb Bush for reelection and the Insurance Commissioner’s office flipped from R to D. Florida seemed enlightened compared to the rest of the nation.
But that would the last time Florida would stand apart. 1998, which was generally a Democratic year nationally, was disastrous for Florida Democrats. 2002 and 2004, both Republican years nationally turned into wave elections for Florida Republicans who performed far better than the national average for the GOP. 2006, which was a Democratic wave election nationally was a mixed bag for Florida Democrats partly due to improper planning. The same could be said for 2008. Like 2012, 2008 and 2006 were net gain years for Democrats but nowhere near as good as they could have been.
Then came the 2010 wipe-out when the Democrats put every egg in the Alex Sink for Governor basket and lost four Congressional seats in the state. The party also lost five State House seats and two State Senate seats. The Cabinet races were a wipe-out of epic proportions and the Republicans entered a reapportionment year with advantages up and down the board. In fairness to Florida Democrats, similar scenarios played out in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio so it was not an isolated incident. Ironically, in 2012 Barack Obama would carry all four mega-states where Democrats had been obliterated in 2010.
Current generic congressional polling and Presidential approval ratings are similar if not slightly worse today than they were at this point in 2010. So what can Democrats in Florida do to avoid a similarly terrible fate? How can Democrats minimize the damage that seems to be coming?
I get the sense that unlike 2010, some in the Democratic Party this go-round are aware of the difficulty and challenges that lie ahead. Recognition of the peril that lies ahead is half the battle. During the 2010 cycle, while many sensed a bad Democratic year, proactive steps were not taken at the highest levels to minimize damage. Furthermore, a sense of denial had overtaken many of the state’s party leadership. While the current party leadership certainly has its flaws, understanding the daunting challenges that this election years poses seems to not be one of them.
In Charlie Crist, the Democrats have a more dynamic and tested candidate statewide than Alex Sink was. That is another big bonus for the FDP this time around as they look to minimize damage. Crist’s skills can help to develop a message of positive populism, something the Democrats have tried to embrace but generally have failed at.
But Crist can only do so much. As the party’s standard-bearer he has a seat at the table but also has an independent campaign to run and win. Ultimately planning and field work will make the biggest difference, and for this the leadership must come from the top of the state and national parties.
A big part of planning involves candidate recruitment. At the House and Senate level, the party has already failed to recruit enough solid candidates but in Crist the top of the ticket should perform at least as well as it did in 2010. Alex Sink was a poor candidate, and while Charlie Crist is often maligned, nobody would confuse the political skills of the two. However, without compelling Democratic candidates locally to work their areas and drive turnout in an off-year election, problems are likely to ensue. Still, enough energy should be generated by Crist’s campaign and the few targeted legislative races to create a possibility of a good grassroots and field structure. This is necessary to ensure that turnout doesn’t dip dramatically among core Democratic voters as it did in 2010.
The grassroots piece is critical. The DNC announced yesterday that they are bringing a voter expansion project to Florida. This effort should reap long-term rewards for the party if it is developed and sustained in the manner that has been promised. It is imperative that the Democrats begin planning at some level for 2016 now while keeping an eye on minimizing loses in 2014. Even if 2014 is as bad as 2010, proper planning will ensure the Democrats take better advantage of the Presidential wave in 2016 that could happen than 2012, when the party left countless winnable legislative seats on the table.
Ultimately, the President’s lack of popularity and movement from one crisis to another could undermine any efforts that are made here in Florida. But that doesn’t preclude the party leadership from putting in long-term plans that will help further develop an infrastructure so when 2016 and 2018 rolls around we are not asking the same types of questions. President Obama is a noose around Florida Democrats right now. But considering Democrats are going to be hit with association with an unpopular President they must make the decision whether to own his accomplishments and shift the narrative in that direction or whether to run from him. I quite frankly, do not have the answer to this question as it will depend entirely on good polling data to determine.
Many Democrats across the state fear 2014 is shaping up to be another 2010. On the surface, it certainly appears it could be just as bad. However, if Florida Democrats continue to recognize the difficulties faced this cycle and deal with them realistically while leaving a structure in place for the future, it could be a year of pleasant surprises.