Having lost 17 of the last 18 races for Governor or Cabinet, Florida’s Democrats have a record of futility at this level unmatched by any other political party east of the Mississippi River. For all the whining about “gerrymandering” and institutional disadvantages that many Democrats and activists have become known for across Florida, losing close to 95% of statewide campaigns is simply not acceptable. The Florida Democratic Party hierarchy today realizes this, though more than a decade and a half into a full throttle malaise, many would argue it is already far too late.
While Democrats have been running and losing statewide, little has been done to grow the party on the grassroots level by county DEC’s and to develop and produce attractive statewide candidates. Florida Republicans were in a similar malaise in the 1970’s, having flushed away a good electoral run in the late 1960’s thanks largely to party infighting and the emergence of a new generation of Democrats most notably Lawton Chiles and Reubin Askew.
By the time the 1980’s rolled around, the RPOF looked like the FDP does today. Ineffectual, unable to take advantage of national wave elections (with the notable exception of Paula Hawkins 1980 US Senate win over a divisive Democratic nominee in Bill Gunter), and often leaving winnable legislative seats completely uncontested. But things changed quickly- the Republicans began aggressively contesting local offices and thought outside the box about candidates, looking to businesses and Chamber of Commerce’s across the state to find potential candidates. They also benefited from some party switches, most notably that of Conservative Attorney General Jim Smith who had been defeated in the 1986 Gubernatorial runoff by liberal State Rep. Steve Pajcic (D-Jacksonville). Pajcic’s victory in the runoff led to an exodus of conservative Democrats and a seven seat state Senate pickup (including party switches) in that cycle.
By the time 1994 rolled around, the Republicans had so many credible candidates for statewide office, they had no idea what to do with all of them. An era of Republican dominance ensued shortly thereafter and the Democrats have yet to recover.
Today, Florida’s Democrats are almost completely irrelevant in the state’s political process. Democratic legislators are hardly if ever needed to pass major legislation and Republicans have controlled the cabinet since 1998. Democrats have rarely if ever reached beyond either siting or former elected officials to grab candidates – the one exception was the husband/wife duo of Bill McBride and Alex Sink. It is probably not a coincidence that Sink is the only Democrat to win a statewide office since 2000. Her background and profile is what the Democrats need to find more of throughout the state.
But since we don’t have names and faces attached to potential Democrats statewide candidates who are not public officials currently, let’s take a quick look at the few that might make a good statewide run in 2018 (Much of the recent focus on the 2016 US Senate race is nice, but as a Floridian who maintains a state-first perspective, I am much more concerned about filling candidates for cabinet races than for a single US Senate race).
Irrespective of what some activist Democrats might think, Charlie Crist might have a statewide run left in him. Let down by the Obama Administration and national trends, Crist over-performed in 2014 relative to similar candidates in other states. Crist must define himself early and aggressively if he were to run again – he is after all a man that has given his entire adult life for the betterment of Florida’s citizens, unlike the insider class in his former party who sought to either enrich themselves or use this state to push a strictly ideological agenda.
Crist remains in the opinion of this writer, the single most attractive and electable Democrat that the party could field for high office in Florida as of today. But the reality is that many Democrats want to move on, so he probably won’t get another look. But moving on entails exactly what and whom?
The names Patrick Murphy and Gwen Graham continue to circulate. Both defeated incumbent Republicans in seats that lean slightly Republican (Murphy’s a more traditional Republican seat where Democrats haven’t fared well since the 1970’s). Both are untested statewide but have the type of profile that is very attractive to a wide swath of voters. Murphy’s voting record has been mixed but might in fact be too liberal on some social issues to win over as many independently minded folks as Graham might be able to do. Besides, Graham has family pedigree that even among the highly transient Florida electorate will be a plus. Murphy remains attractive but Graham is probably a stronger bet if and when she seeks statewide office. It should also be noted Murphy is one of only a handful of Democrats from mostly liberal southeast Florida that can be taken seriously as a potential statewide candidates.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has spent a lifetime in Tampa city politics. Seen as a rising young star in the party in the late 1990’s he still hasn’t made a statewide run. After being elected Mayor in 2011 Buckhorn’s profile has risen to a point where he seems to be the heir apparent for Governor provided Crist doesn’t take another shot. Well-liked by Republicans and Democrats locally, the Mayor seems like a decent candidate for statewide office. But as he approaches the age of 60, time is beginning to run out. Still for 2018, Buckhorn looks a strong bet, and Hillsborough County which is the most important place electorally in the state is a great place to be based. While Democrats have run other candidates based in the county for Governor since 2002, Buckhorn is the single best known and locally connected public official in the area. He seems a very solid bet though a liberal primary challenge from another part of the state cannot be ruled out.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer made a credible run for Attorney General in 2002 and has a resume that few in either party can match. Top all-time score on the Florida Bar, Senate Democratic leader and big city Mayor for over a decade. But he simply isn’t dynamic enough on the stump or telegenic enough to be considered a top-tier contender. State Senator Darren Soto (D-Orlando) is one of the few Democratic legislators with real statewide potential. But Soto might be more focused on running for Congress sometime soon than taking the plunge into a statewide race where any Democrat will be an underdog.
Unlike the 1960’s and 1970’s when Democrats from Miami were able to run frequently with success for statewide office, southeast Florida has become so different than the rest of the state culturally that it is difficult to envision many Democrats from the region being serious contenders to win statewide office. One exception could very well be State Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Plantation). The second term House Democrat boasts a unique mixture of traits – a knowledge of agriculture issues and the rural heartland of Florida (a subject we will cover in greater detail in the near future) as well as an understanding of urban southeast Florida, and a growing political network in both places. Edwards is still very young (she’ll still be in her mid 30’s come 2018) and has plenty of election cycles in front of her.
What about the potential progressives in the Democratic Party? While the author is a devout liberal, it has become obvious that most of the progressives who might seek statewide office are unlikely to be successful. This might be different in a Presidential Election year, like 2016 but the names tossed around, Alan Grayson, Dan Gelber, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch all have significant drawbacks that might simply make them regional candidates. While as an individual, I would be more likely to support one of these four in a primary (especially Gelber who is uniquely qualified to serve at a high level in this state) than the names discussed above and each might be viable in 2016, realistically with the Democrats desperate to win any state office, the significantly safer bets for 2018 are mentioned before this paragraph.
Democrats must get it right in 2018. The building blocks and foundations must be laid now for a successful statewide cycle. The Florida Democratic Party hierarchy gets that things must change – but will lip service and rhetoric shift to action and a better cycle with good statewide candidates? Only time will tell on that front.