While the Crist defeat was perhaps the most painful for Democrats to bear around the state, the return of the super-majority of Republican control in the House will have far more consequences. While the Crist victory was at least close enough to not be an embarrassment, the defeat of six house incumbents was a shock and surprise and much of the recent battle over leadership is a result of this fiasco.
The finger-pointing started almost immediately with many in the party going after House Leader-designee Mark Pafford and Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant. But what we will lay out here will show that the causes of this disaster go back much further than the leadership of Mark Pafford or Allison Tant and were an inherited problem for both.
The house races this year were a continuation of the failures of House Victory in 2010 and 2012.
In 2010, the party made countless errors in the contesting of open seats. In some cases a decision was made to simply punt until 2012 when some of these seats would be run under a new map thanks to reapportionment. Other races were botched by bad vendor decisions and inaccurate polling. The Democrats lost five seats on Election Day in 2010, as part of the national wave.
In 2012, the party celebrated defeating the super-majority, the season was also riddled with lost opportunities and missteps by the party. Candidate recruitment was abysmal: the party failed to field candidates in 49 of the 120 house seats. At the time, the party was run by Rod Smith who seemed disinterested totally in candidate recruitment. Thus, power fell to House Victory staffers, consultants and vendors empowered by the party.
Kartik wrote an extensive critique about the poor recruitment back when he was at the Political Hurricane. For the most part, fair districts won races instead of the FDP; the major victories on Election Day were by candidates who were not supported by the party. Mike Clelland, the big win of the night who knocked off Chris Dorworth, was not assisted by House Victory at all until the final two weeks. This is the same story as Carl Zimmerman who in the last two weeks of the race received assistance that was previously given to three failed Pinellas County candidates which had long been House Victory targets to the tune of six figures. Mark Danish was completely unassisted by the party who allegedly tried to keep money from his campaign. Karen Welzel, Milissa Holland, Eileen Game and Gail Gottlieb also lost close races largely without state party assistance. The Democrats recruited a star Dennis Mulder in the toss-up Deland based 27th House District, but citing minimal assistance from the party, Mulder dropped out after qualifying and allowed Republican Dennis Santiago to walk into the seat with only token opposition.
Arguably, the biggest misstep of the 2012 was in House District 114, where Ross Hancock came within a few hundred votes of beating Erik Fresen with a mere $11,000. While House Victory at the time felt that no Democrat should have run in that race based upon pre-determined figures (A party memo was even circulated indicating that HD-114 was a “GOP” seat), no resources were spent and no support was given. Overall, state Democrats lost 13 House races by less than 5,000 votes and five House races by less than 2,000 votes. Had the party played in some of those races, the returning house number could have been close to 50 and would have been in a much stronger position to withstand the loss of a few seats this year. The failures of 2012 simply set the stage for the abysmal 2014. These mistakes happened on the watches of Rod Smith and Perry Thurston.
House Victory begins to lay out 2014 using the same faulty logic and it shows in candidate recruitment. Instead of going to Ross Hancock and building on his name recognition and work, Daisy Baez is drafted for 2014 and provided with party staff as early as summer 2013. Despite massive amounts of negative ad buys against Erik Fresen, Baez failed to get 42% of the vote. Between this race and David Silvers’ challenge of Bill Hagar, the party supported just two attacks on incumbents and failed at both attempts while several other candidates, most notably Steve Sarnoff versus Chris Latvala, who came much closer than Baez. The money spent on Baez and Silvers could have easily been spent to defend the embattled incumbents. And let us not forget the problems the Florida Democrats had in getting on the ballot – incumbent Reggie Fullwood faces a primary challenger in December after failing on the paperwork and Larry Aguilar never was able to get on the ballot.
At the center of most of these controversies is Christian Ulvert, who has been the common thread in the last few cycles. As much as Mark Pafford is taking heat for the loses, Ulvert was the one who was paid by the party to defend the House. The party relied on Ulvert to tally the numbers for targeted races in 2012 and this resulted in many missed opportunities and as a consequence, the majority of the debacles of 2012 lie squarely on his shoulders. Had 2012 been handled correctly, 2014 would have been very different irrespective of who was House leader. Pafford’s greatest mistake was to trust Ulvert particularly with the south Florida races just two years after he made countless errors across the state.
Under Ulvert, candidate recruitment has suffered to the point of nonexistence. His biggest claim to fame seems to be Dan Gelber’s Attorney General’s race against Pam Bondi, which was a blowout in 2010. Four years later Ulvert’s fingerprints were all over House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston’s blowout primary loss to George Sheldon for the same office. Between giving us Bondi and the return of a Republican super-majority, there is a huge question of why this man is still getting a FDP paycheck. Constant complains of close ties to other consultants, allegations of kick-backs, and above all, a closed-door policy have hurt the party more than his defeats. His lack of credibility is a liability to the party.
The bottom line is that there is a misguided formula to support candidates for state house. Currently in Florida, it is common practice for a candidate to declare for a house race and get no assistance or guidance from the party. Instead, they are handed a slew of consultants and vendors, few of which they can afford. While there has to be some measure of viability in order to get party funds, the decision lies only with one man to determine this for the party – Christian Ulvert. The House relies heavily on two measures to determine viability – that $50,000 benchmark of fundraising and the Democratic Performance Index of the district. However, because candidate recruitment has been so abysmal and the fact that districts were redrawn in 2010, many of these DPI measures are obviously inaccurate and biased. The Democrats have not run enough candidates to get reliable DPI on many districts for down-ballot candidates. As I wrote in my Gwen Graham piece, the two main lessons from that race are that an 18 month campaign on local issues can be a game-changer. Yet instead, the party is constantly pushing fund raising instead of field – a mistake that continues to cost seats. At the end of a day, a spreadsheet is not the only factor to determine candidate viability.
No campaign can succeed these days without paid campaign staff and one of the major things the party could do would be to train more activists to run campaigns effectively. There is a huge shortage of people who can effectively run campaigns and those that can are much more money than most house candidates can afford. Flood the market with a bunch of young kids who know how to run field and you could change the game. The Republican party of Florida provides campaign staff training for anyone running for elected office – held in Orlando in the spring before the election, staff can come and get the basic information to run a race for little out of pocket cost. Clearly, something like this would be beneficial for Democrats. Candidates do not necessarily know how to run a campaign and while they should know the basics, they need support and knowledge that the party could provide.
Moving forward, the party has to increase candidate recruitment and support earlier on. Spending needs to be prioritized differently – candidates who announce spring of 2015 need to have resources available in order to build an 18 month field plan. Democratic candidates are never going to win the money game – their numbers in the house are so insignificant that no outside money can be expected, so therefore candidates are going to have to win in the field and this takes time. The party needs more field on the ground if this is ever going to happen. As I wrote in my Gwen Graham piece, the two main lessons from that race are that an 18 month campaign on local issues can be a game-changer. While the late primary makes thing complicated, additional candidate support can be offered in the means of staff training and campaign logistics instead of monetary support in a way that is fair for both primary candidates.
There cannot be a grassroots party driven by volunteer labor where the primary beneficiaries are consultants and venders. This works for the Republicans because they are not running on a populist message of equality and fairness and have the money to pay staff for all levels of campaigning. If Democrats are going to pull ahead, they have to live by their own message and be the grassroots organization they claim to be.
The Florida Democratic Party cannot continue to let Ulvert botch candidate recruitment and if the party chooses to wait until the LEAD committee delivers recommendations next summer, another two cycles will be wasted. Another redistricting will take place in 2020 and the number of house members has to increase before then. TFS sources indicate that Ulvert will nonetheless have a leading role in the 2016 cycle and has yet to be let go by Allison Tant. With the reaction of her LEAD task force being extensively negative and ridiculed, the FDP is still facing huge leadership deficit. Tant seems committed to doing the right thing, but the combination of inertia, the influence of outside forces and Ulvert’s continued involvement make her less influential and effective than she should be as the Party Chairwoman. If she chooses to keep Ulvert around, her leadership will continue be in question. As we stated from the beginning, strong leadership is needed and party staff incapable of winning need to be removed. If Tant is unwilling to do this, she raises serious questions about her own leadership skills.