Monday evening, my colleague Katy Burnett analyzed the hiring of a new leading staffer at the Florida Democratic Party but also assessed some of the greater issues with the party. I will withhold judgement on the hiring until a future date, but let’s take a clear look at what has happened since November 4th with the FDP and local DEC’s.
On November 4th, Democrats were routed all over the country including here in Florida. The party lost six State House seats, four of which were carried by the party’s Gubernatorial nominee, Charlie Crist. Following four more statewide loses, the Democrats percentage of wins for statewide office since 2000 dropped to just over 5%. This is the single worst percentage for ANY major political party east of the Mississippi River in that time period.
The first statewide meeting for Florida Democrats following this debacle took place in Orlando two weekends ago and proved to demonstrate to many observers why Democrats continue to lose just about every major contested election in the state. Despite some positive early signs and changes made by Chairwoman Allison Tant and the party staff, the reforms have not come quickly or publicly enough. In fact, many believe they have not come at all.
As we discussed over the weekend, when you consider that House Democrats ran in 2014 on a much more favorable map than 2010, the current 39 House Democrats would probably translate to 34 or 35 members on the old (2002-2010) map. That would represent the low water mark for the party in the history of this state. On the legislative side, Democrats have realized they need to do better and are beginning to take some of the steps needed to make positive changes, that might eventually pay off in getting the party to near 50 House seats by 2020, but still not at the number of seats that potentially favored Democrats that appeared to be drawn in the 2012 reapportionment (that number would be somewhere between 52 and 55). But in other areas, the party’s dysfunction continues.
The meetings in Orlando were largely dominated by fights over procedural matters, secret meetings that focused on intrigue and attempts by many around party, including Christian Ulvert who is supposedly on his way out of the FDP to have an impact on proceedings. Party caucuses which have largely been dysfunctional over the past decade continued that pattern in this set of meetings, while the LEAD Committee began its work in earnest, a full three months after electoral disaster, and long after the Republicans had begun similar work. But instead of focusing on reversing the recent run of electoral defeats, the meetings largely focused on procedure, rules and ceremony. This is nothing new and Allison Tant is not to blame for any of this – but it does beg the question what the actual function or purpose of the Florida Democratic Party is.
Young potential candidates both at the local level and among state legislators aren’t being properly groomed or prepared to run for statewide office. The party’s almost obsessive focus on retreads has led Democrats into an absolutely untenable situation. 72 year-old Bill Nelson remains the most visible face of the party and was urged to run for Governor last year by many of its leaders – a race he was far from a sure bet to win, by the way. Nelson is the co-chair of the LEAD Task Force and continues to influence the decisions made by party staff. Any discussion of statewide candidates usually revolves around those who have run before, or people tied to specific political consultants, vendors or party staffers.
Party vendors and consultants have often been used as proxy agents to recruit statewide candidates – and given the dismal record of those who have ended up running it is strange that the same power brokers continue to feed at the trough of the party. Again, this predates Allison Tant’s tenure and given the unwillingness of many in the party to change direction, it is likely to continue after she is long gone as chair.
It’s not that the Democrats do not have potentially attractive statewide candidates. Several are out there including many currently in elected office, but most aren’t aggressively recruited and many are even seen as threats by an entrenched group of party leaders, consultants and vendors.
The party has made virtually no effort to build infrastructure in second-tier counties, the medium sized counties that represent 40% of the statewide vote – places like Marion, Brevard and Lee counties are largely ignored by Democratic Party planners because they are considered “red” areas. Democrats were beaten soundly up and down Interstate 75 in this last cycle, without expending much effort to cut margins outside Sarasota County. The party is virtually non-existent in the large rural heartland of Central and South Florida, while local DEC’s have proven to be largely debating societies or mechanisms for personal fiefdoms in large counties.
The Florida Democratic Party has gone from opposite extremes – focusing on rural small North Florida counties to large urban South & Central Florida ones, to back and forth between the two. But as I have stated time and again the lack of emphasis on medium sized counties particularly ones along I-75 and I-95 are among the biggest reasons why Democrats continue to lose statewide. While many Florida Democrats including those who leave comments on this site like to use “gerrymandering” as a constant excuse for failures, the inability to develop an infrastructure in counties with large populations for activation in statewide campaigns has nothing to do with district lines on legislative level. In fact, as we have pointed out earlier Democrats have had a far more favorable map in the State House to run from since 2012 potentially putting more areas in play and creating an opportunity to build infrastructure in these areas. Yet the House Democratic Caucus stands at the same 39 members it did after the 2010 election.
Change is always difficult and perhaps it would have been unwise to throw out the baby with bathwater after another poor election cycle. But from the outside looking in, it seems like the changes that have been made have been outweighed by the continued dysfunction of party, particularly at the grassroots and state committee level. Chairwoman Allison Tant appears to want to do the right thing, but the mechanisms for change are either out of her grasp or she is simply unwilling to buck a system dominated by entrenched party staff, consultants, vendors and elected officials like Senator Bill Nelson who have little concept of how to rebuild a party that is on a nearly two decade losing streak.