Much has been made in the last three months of the need for Democrats in Florida to “engage moderate voters,” in the wake of poor electoral performances in 2014. No question exists that moderates have a role to play, particularly in rural areas where the party has seen a complete collapse in support since the mid/late 1990’s. But it would be foolish to believe that the Democratic message in this state has been more liberal than centrist. The Democratic brand has in many cases simply been identified as “anti-Republican” or based largely around one or two social issues. The important issues of economic and social justice have been largely abandoned by the Democrats in this state, it appears due to a misreading of the electorate and populace. Other factors in the party’s unwillingness to embrace progressive values revolve around the influence of special interests on elected officials who call themselves Democrats.
Florida Democrats have time and again nominated moderates for statewide office, yet have managed to lose 19 of the last 20 statewide elections where Bill Nelson was not on the ballot. During this same period, the Democratic Presidential nominee has won the state THREE TIMES running as a liberal (This is counting Al Gore’s result in 2000 as a victory). Statewide leaders in the Democratic Party have consistently talked about the need to nominate moderate candidates to be competitive in general elections though ZERO empirical evidence exists that moderate nominees perform better than liberal ones. Only once in the period did the Democrats nominate an out-and-out liberal for statewide office, Dan Gelber for Attorney General in 2010. Otherwise, the Democrats nominated moderates or those who tried to play moderate once running in a general.
The 2016 US Senate race is around the corner and while this particular writer still believes Senator Marco Rubio is a healthy favorite, the Democratic Party needs to field strong opposition. Yet large elements of the party establishment is already pushing hard to make Congressman Patrick Murphy the nominee. The problem is Murphy doesn’t stand for much, and has won twice against incredibly weak opposition. In fact in the last election, Murphy beat Carl Domino who might be single biggest underperformer as a multiple time candidate in the modern history of the Florida House of Representatives. Thus the jump to a congressional race was always going to make Domino a weak Republican. This is not to say Murphy shouldn’t be the nominee – but he should not be anointed and progressives should not be marginalized or discounted yet again by party elders. The mention of the likes Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Alan Grayson or others are often met with snickers from political professionals who say “they cannot win.” Yet the Democrats have time and again run candidates like Murphy and LOST.
The Tallahassee establishment and those around the mechanisms of power in the capital city consistently point to a need to compete in North Florida as a criteria for needing to nominate “moderate” candidates. But those same people forget that if you take liberal Leon County out of the equation, the rest of CD-2 represents less than 2.5% of the electorate in the state. At the same time the Democrats have largely ignored medium sized counties such as Marion, Pasco, Manatee, Lee, Polk, Brevard and others where Obama drove up turnout in 2008 and 2012. He didn’t win any of the aforementioned counties but he did perform better (by percentage of the vote) in all of them then Charlie Crist or Alex Sink. Every county I listed has at least 200,000 voters while Brevard, Pasco and Polk both have more people than CD-2 when you eliminate Leon County. Lee County has more people than CD-2 including Leon. Yet Democrats aren’t emphasizing what would work in these critical parts of the state, areas they often drive through or drive by in their journeys from Tallahassee to the large urban centers of the state.
The idea of “swing voters,” someone who consciously splits their tickets or tries to balance some issues against others, is a distinctly dated concept. In the 1990s these voters existed en masse especially here in Florida, but today with few exceptions people who turn out do so to vote down the line for the party that better represents their values.
Voters these days are driven by emotion on one or two big issues. Even if they describe themselves as “moderates,” chances are very good they vote based on one or two issues where they are either clearly conservative or clearly liberal. This is particularly true in midterm elections. Lower voter turnout in midterm elections among Democrats from my vantage point can be traced largely if not wholly to a party brand that does not identify with the values it campaigns on during Presidential years. The party’s messaging also has consistently failed to mirror the voices of leading progressive groups. This is a problem as well on the national level, where the corporate bent of the Democratic Party is worse than it is here in Florida.
The theory that the party must be more moderate and avoid as much as possible topics such as economic justice, a living wage, corporate responsibility, health care, environmental preservation, climate change and gender equality in the workforce often develop thanks to the types of contributors individual Democratic elected officials cultivate, and the sorts of folks they hang around in Tallahassee. The need to be more moderate theory was once again floated by party elders within days of the November 2014 election defeat without a SINGLE PIECE OF EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE TO BACK UP THESE CLAIMS.
As we have previously discussed about the Democratic bastion of Broward County, the transactional nature of that county’s Democratic operatives and leaders has disaffected those interested in progressive causes and social justice from elements within the party. So even in places which appear on paper to be more progressive than the rest of the state, the influence of money and special interest access has clouded the judgement of many Democrats.
In a six square-block area around the capitol, the Democratic legislators and other elected officials who come up during session for various “days” might feel they have to kowtow to political ‘experts’ who are paid hired guns that claim to know strategically what works best for the party. They may believe that these guns-for-hire have all the answers when they being wined and dined by them or other corporate lobbyists. But in the rest of the state, the real grassroots and those struggling to get by every day are looking for aggressive leadership from the Democrats.
The FDP can only do so much even if they try — it is the elected officials who run as Democrats, not the party itself, who have time and again sought creative ways to avoid discussion on real issues, and being true progressives that would connect with working class families and voters throughout this state. It is these same elected officials that for the most part avoid things that drive media also including criminal justice reform, gun safety, civil rights and racial issues including law enforcement over zealousness, and most discussion of immigration. I reiterate that I firmly believe President Obama’s ill-conceived punt on immigration in order to placate moderate U.S. Senators running for reelection cost Charlie Crist the governorship, while every single senator the delay was meant to help lost decisively. We can continue hand wringing about the other numerous and valid reasons Crist lost, but this was single most decisive factor in my mind. The slump in Hispanic turnout also led to a wipeout down-ballot for Democrats throughout the state.
Low voter turnout in off years is in my opinion largely due to Democrats disengagement on economic issues and those of social justice. But with the push coming from Tallahassee insiders, lobbyists and corporate interests throughout the default solution for Democrats is always to “move to the middle.” If moving right were a viable solution the Democrats would have been long in control of both houses of the legislature and the state cabinet. Instead this is a party that has barely won 5% of races for Governor and Cabinet since 2000. When voters are denied a clear choice at the ballot box and forced to choose between a real Republican and a phony one, they choose the real one just about every single time.
Even if it is a more moderate government that is sought, candidates running to the left and making democracy really work is needed. Moderation in governing can only come if the minority party stays true to its values and holds firm. A move to the middle by the Democrats would not improve the party’s electoral prospects as we have seen time and again over the last 15 years, and would cede important positioning in the effort to temper the excessive conservatism of the governing party and its special interest allies. Democrats must remember this when approaching the 2016 and 2018 election cycles. The demographic changes in this state and nation favor the Democrats if they stay true to the values which the majority of citizens of this country have demonstrated they believe in. But if Tallahassee-based insiders and political operatives are allowed to let their bottom line and control of the process override common sense, we will have several more election cycles that resemble recent ones in this state.