Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz (also DNC Chairwoman) has been in the news recently, both for hinting that she is considering a Senate run and for her stance on marijuana over a very public spat with John Morgan. While her Senate aspirations have encouraged some Democrats around the state, who are faced with an almost empty bench, the reality of a DWS run is simply a train-wreck waiting to happen. While there are many issues and concerns about her candidacy, no one is talking about one of the biggest weakness she has: Allison Tant.
It is hardly a secret that Allison Tant was Wasserman Shultz’s hand-picked party chair and both she and Senator Bill Nelson pulled favors not so subtly to get her in the chair position. And while the DNC Chairwoman had little connection to the grassroots of the party, she convinced enough people to support Tant – with the help of FDP Executive Director Scott Arceneaux.. Tant took the reigns and has tried to push some real reforms, which was a welcome change compared to the lackluster performance of past chairs. However, while she had tried to turn the party around after the abysmal performances of the past, she has also created deep divisions and has created this culture of ‘her’ side and the “other” side. She has spent just as much time attacking and alienating other Democrats as she has Republicans – in the name of creating a “united’” party of “Good Democrats.” But by doing so, she has splintered the already dysfunctional party. This is after all a party that has lost 19 of the last 20 statewide elections where Bill Nelson has not been on the ballot.
In order for a Senate Democratic candidate to win, they would have to have the a fully functioning united party that was willing to hit the streets and fight for a win. Under Tant, this appears unlikely to happen, regardless of her best intentions. The ground work of uniting the party elements has not yet begun and will not under this current party structure. Even though there were devastating losses last year, the party has neither re-structured or publicly come up with a plan to improve. There were deep divisions over Nan Rich’s failed run at governor, deep divides among the FDP leadership over the more conservative members in both the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses, and more recently an intense rivalry with Leslie Wimes over the creation of an African-American Democratic Women’s Club. With so many fractured elements, the field work and infrastructure likely needed to win that Senate seat is going to be difficult to build.
One of the reasons Tant is such a polarizing figure is the divisive and haphazard messaging that the FDP has taken. In the response to Rick Scott’s state of the state, it was very clear that Democrats have a messaging problem. While they are quick to speak up for the middle class and the ‘little fellow’, they do not include a broad message to give people a reason to fight. The reason that economic populism is such an effective tool is because it is inclusive. Messaging to just the lower class excludes a lot of people and basic political science tells us that they are the least likely people to go out and vote. They cannot be the audience for each and every press engagement.
In chasing after the perfect idealistic Democrat, the party has alienated a huge part of the base. All progressive issues do not work all over the state, yet the party continues to take some far left stances and leaves little room for the moderate in the party. This comes at the same time as the party keeps talking about the need to nominate moderate candidates and not nominate progressives statewide. The contradiction is glaring yet many potential moderate statewide candidates have not been groomed by the FDP – in fact they have been ignored or ostracized.
Local issues need to matter more and there needs to be more attention to local issues than ideals. The average voter is more likely to engage in a local issue than an ideological one. The official Florida Democratic Party has proven to be an ineffective messenger for these far-left policy stances and when talking about moderates they have failed to grow the bench in rural areas. They have alienated BOTH liberals and moderates in the party, while zig-zagging between the two and consistently losing elections. The FDP needs to focus on the issues on the ground and find more local issues to get involved in.They need to build a bench of local candidates and get involved in more city and county races.
The messaging from the party completely ignores that. They are all over the place, supporting President Obama one minute, talking about minimum wage the next, then jumping into the Florida Legislature in an undisciplined way – they have lost who they are messaging to. They fundamentally do not understand the people that they are trying to bring together. There needed to be a united clear message instead of a bunch of garbled good ideas. Economic populism is more than just about individual pocketbooks – it is about the economic stability of the whole system, which is why it can incorporate a wide-range of voters. Elizabeth Warren is incredibly effective in her messaging because she sticks to a few key issues and hammers those. This scrambled all-over approach misses the mark and ultimately fails to unite people, something that is obvious in Democratic voting numbers around the state.
While the FDP is quick to boast about the effectiveness of the party’s social media campaigns, there is also a lot of baggage created by this approach. The constant trolling of GOP figures by the social media team on Twitter is unprofessional and frankly, an insult to most party-faithful. It turns people off more than it draws people in. They are clearly constantly trying to get more followers and likes, but have sacrificed true communication. No real communications strategy that incorporates developing intricate media relationships and a clean narrative appears to exist. There is a difference between calling out current and former legislators on issues or simply harassing them about personal issues on twitter and this boundary is frequently crossed by the FDP Press Team. All of their communication is one-way, with little input from local communities or activists and without the consistency of a cohesive media strategy. This shows inconsistent leadership and the wrong goals. The desire to gain twitter followers and Facebook likes seems to have overhauled the need to register voters, communicate consistently or win elections as an FDP priority.
Just the other day we learned Gwen Graham was not listed on the FDP website. Once the issue became known on Facebook, the FDP fixed it. That came just days after House Majority Leader Dana Young (R-Tampa) revealed that she was solicited by the FDP for a contribution. These mistakes seem to happen regularly.
Overall, Tant’s leadership is questionable at best. Even though many of the failures could be contributed to other party staff and outside factors, she is the leader and has yet to find a way to unite Florida Democrats or truly move the party forward. If any senate candidate is going to win, Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz or otherwise, they are going to have to overcome the divisions that Tant has both inherited and created. Her standing as Chair may itself be another reason Debbie Wasserman Schultz won’t be fully trusted by many Democrats.