Charlie Crist’s defeat November 4th along with the loss of three other cabinet races mean that Florida Democrats have now lost 17 of the last 18 races for state office. This record is unmatched for futility anywhere east of the Mississippi River. But unlike past election cycles, Florida’s Democrats actually performed equally if not better than most other eastern seaboard and southeastern states. In fact, defeat in the Governor’s race might have been snatched from victory thanks to missteps orchestrated by Washington Democratic insiders and the Obama Administration.
The President’s decision to punt on immigration reform and to delay action on loosening the Cuban embargo until after the election had as much if not more to do with Crist’s defeat then the long line of excuses and analysis we get from within the state of Florida. The lack of strong rhetoric on Climate Change coming from national Democrats this year as opposed to what we heard in 2008 and 2012 also hurt. Simply put national Democrats let Governor Crist and Florida Democrats down.
Washington Democratic insiders were solely focused on holding the US Senate. This pushed President Obama into a posture where he pushed immigration reform off until after the election to help four vulnerable US Senators from states won by Mitt Romney in 2012. All four Senators were defeated, three by wide margins despite the President’s inaction. At the same time Hispanic voters as a percentage of Florida’s electorate dove from 17% in 2012 to 13% in 2014. The downturn in voter participation this cycle in Dade, Broward, Orange and Osceola counties it could be inferred had a direct relationship to voter anger about this decision.
The Cuban embargo was perhaps trickier. I have long supported a complete lifting of the embargo but also realized due to excellent polling done by specialists in Hispanic voting patterns that Charlie Crist could be very hurt in Miami-Dade County by taking the courageous stand he did. But Crist could have gotten past this issue much easier if the President and national Democrats had come out with the recent policy changes before the election. The former Governor had zero cover on this issue and the downturn in Cuban-American support for Crist from President Obama’s 2012 numbers may have been related to this issue. Crist had to quickly backpedal from his position and didn’t receive any support at that point publicly from the administration.
Governor Crist also ran aggressively on issues of income inequality and special interest control of state government. While these were niche Florida issues by and large, national messaging on the economy was completely lost. Some of the very same special interests that have driving the policy agenda here in Florida give to Democrats nationally, so in some respects discomfort with Crist’s messaging may have creept into the thinking in Washington.
Many Democrats in Washington seemed to think holding US Senate seats in a tough electoral climate was more important than winning the Governorship in the nation’s third largest state for the first time in 20 years. Florida Democrats, never the best organized bunch who had to scramble to offset a decade and a half of institutional neglect were thus put at an even greater disadvantage. Those who live in a Washington bubble can perhaps be forgiven for ignoring Florida, but it is possible that this explains why the Democrats have allowed state level elections to trend so heavily towards the Republicans throughout the country in recent years. The Republicans are today in better shape in state legislative chambers and Governorship’s than anytime since the Reconstruction era and in Congress since before the Great Depression.
While money flowed into the state on the Democratic side, the messaging of the party was inconsistent with the positive, populist and progressive campaign Governor Crist tried to run. Florida Democrats did their best but it could be claimed they were left on the beach to be shot down by the national leaders. Though it might be also argued the decision of the Crist campaign to not bring President Obama into Florida to motivate base voters also reflected flawed thinking.
Governor Crist needed a boost from the national party and the President. He didn’t get it and Rick Scott won reelection. Much of the blame has been cast on the state party for this electoral debacle which saw the Democrats lose every statewide race and six legislative seats. But the reality is that for the first time in a long while Florida actually outperformed most similar sized and neighboring states for the Democrats. But it was a bad year and the decisions made in Washington made it impossible for Florida Democrats to prevail.
But the desire to blame the state party for the losses is as intense today as it was after the 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2012 disappointments. But this year was different – signs of the party rebounding were there for those who cared to look. Sure the state party is nowhere near where it needs to be for 2016 and beyond but for the first time since 1996, I feel like the state party is actually improving its communications, infrastructure and understanding of local level issues/races. The FDP has a long way to go still to be truly an effective political party, but progress is evident. However, it seems to serve the purposes of some Democrats who are determined at all costs to prove the Florida Democratic Party is a failing at its job to blame Crist’s loss on the state party. Others like to blame the candidate himself because after all he was a former Republican who couldn’t connect with core Democrats.
But the reality is few public officials in this state have given their lives to improve Florida the way Charlie Crist has. His love and understanding of this state prompted him to switch parties and try and unseat a Governor who is not only a carpetbagger but who has shown he has no depth of feeling for Florida. However, party elders in Washington and White House advisers put a greater premium on winning in places like Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska than in Florida. They left our ticket here out to dry but surely would have claimed credit had Crist and other Democrats won in the state. As soon as the election was over and Democrats were wiped out nationally, the President back-peddled and adopted positions that would have won Florida in 2014. To me that is the greatest takeaway from this cycle.