In the past few days my colleagues Katy Burnett and Justin Snyder have both thrown out theories for what Charlie Crist must do to win this gubernatorial election. Katy believes that Crist must work hard in smaller counties, especially those where Nan Rich perceived by many as a left-wing Broward County Democrat oddly performed well in last week’s primary. Justin believes that Crist must work urban counties and raise turnout in core Democratic areas. All indications seem to point to Crist following the Snyder playbook closer than the Burnett one. But lost in this discussion are the medium sized counties where Republicans have built up tremendous advantages in recent statewide campaigns.
Florida’s Democrats have lost 13 of the past 14 elections for statewide (non-federal) office. This is a record which is comparable to that of rock solid Republican states like Utah and Idaho and worse over the same period as traditional GOP strongholds like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Arizona. It is logical and perhaps admirably pragmatic that elements within a desperate party that has failed to properly train or promote a “farm team,” would turn to a proven statewide vote getter such as Charlie Crist to try and regain a foothold at the highest level. But even if Governor Crist wins, it does little to solve the problems the party has as a viable statewide force. But if Crist runs a truly statewide campaign, something the Democrats have not done in sometime, the building blocks for a long-term revival might exist.
Many Tallahassee-based operatives have through the last decade overstated the importance of north Florida counties in the possible revival of the party. While it is true that the leakage of legislative seats in the Big Bend and Panhandle areas has been dramatic, little can be done realistically to change the fortunes in that region. Katy’s article about Crist spending time in these regions might help him in 2014 (or might do nothing for him this election) but long-term the region is probably gone, despite a lingering Democratic voter registration advantage. More importantly, that region does not have enough voters to really turn the tables in statewide elections or in tipping the legislative balance of power. Even if the Democrats carried every county between the Suwannee and Apalachicola Rivers, every election the GOP has won for statewide office since 2000, they still would have won.
We have also heard from the party’s southeast Florida base that maximizing turnout in Miami-Dade Broward and Palm Beach Counties would make all the difference statewide. While there is some truth to the theory that more Democratic votes can be squeezed out of these metropolitan counties, they are already performing very well for Democrats and basing any statewide strategy exclusively around the three counties is difficult, though Obama pulled it off twice and Crist appears poised to be focused similarly in 2014. In both the Obama and Crist cases though, a massive emphasis was put on marrying heavy turnout in Central Florida, with narrow victories in the Tampa media market along with the maximized metropolitan turnout in southeastern Florida.
But let’s focus on a third possibility – The reality is statewide elections have consistently been decided in the favor of the GOP by the continuing underperformance of Democratic candidates in non-metropolitan medium-sized counties that represent a large portion of the statewide electorate.
The most important counties in the state outside the large urban swaths, it can be argued, are Brevard, Pasco, St Lucie, Sarasota, Volusia, Hernando and Polk. With the exception of traditionally Republican Sarasota, these are counties where the Democratic success at the top of the ticket has been mixed, but counties where the local party structure has remained solid and areas where developing a real farm team of local candidates and activists should be intensified with the backing of financial muscle.
Party building requires, like any building, a solid foundation. In politics foundations are built of people – be they registered voters, party activists, eager candidates or motivated donors. Building the foundation necessary to begin and sustain a long-term resurgence of the Democratic Party requires creating a new backbone at the local level of committed activists, potential candidates, and major fund-raisers. A vibrant Crist campaign can begin to create the excitement to build such an infrastructure.
It is these counties, with proper financing, that can turn the state around. With support and guidance from local activists these are the places that can provide the foundation and resurgence of the Democratic Party in Florida at all levels. Local elected officials have the most contact with the average voter and are therefore the primary point of contact between Party, its statewide candidates and the voter. Working to rebuild the infrastructure of the party and an emphasis on localized election may need to begin with a vibrant Crist effort.
While the easiest path to victory for Crist is represented by raising turnout in the three southeast Florida counties and Orange while winning Pinellas/Hillsborough by a comfortable margin. Crist’s campaign cannot be blamed for this thinking, but the opportunity is there in the very next tier of counties to begin building the blocks for long-term success.