2016 was billed as a Democratic wave year here in Florida – the combination of new, fairer Congressional & State Senate maps and Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump would push the party to victory. But instead what ensued was yet another cycle of missed opportunities and outright losses for Florida Democrats – a cycle where the state was not immune from national trends and one where the divisions within our state party were once again liabilities.
The Presidential, US Senate, Congressional and State Senate primaries were also divisive. The party invested resources in five State Senate primaries, resources that could have been better spent in the November elections. In some cases the party-backed candidates such as Mike Clelland and Ed Narain fell flat while in other primaries they were successful. But nonetheless resources were squandered in a way Democrats cannot afford. Blowing cash is different for Republicans because they always have a money advantage in this state particularly when it comes to legislative races. The feeling was that the State Senate was an attainable target for Democrats and coming back to Tallahassee with 19 or 20 seats or even an outright majority of 21 was within the realm of possibilities considering the new map.
As late as early-October, Republicans were fearful that the State Senate could be in play. But when the dust settled November 8th, the Democrats returned to Tallahassee with just 15 seats. Considering Hillary Clinton and Patrick Murphy’s losses it was simply assumed that the top-of-the-ticket had let down Democrats running for the legislature had been crushed in a wave. But Dave Trotter over at The Political Hurricane has been breaking down numbers and it appears Clinton was merely a few hundred votes away from a 20-20 split in terms of carrying Senate Districts and she carried 51 State House seats (which is less than President Obama or Governor Crist in the last two elections but still ten more than the Democrats returned to Tallahassee with). It’s worth noting that according to Mr. Trotter’s analysis, FDP Chair Candidate Dwight Bullard was in a seat carried by Secretary Clinton with 56.40% of the vote, yet Bullard netted just over 40% of the vote himself in a loss to Republican Frank Artiles.
Florida’s Democrats may never get the type of opportunity to achieve parity in a legislative body again in the near future that presented itself in 2016. Considering this reality, it is important for those running for Florida Democratic Party Chair to make it abundantly clear how they would structure legislative campaigns, improve targeting and candidate recruitment as well as mine for newer more “Democratic” funding sources, diversifying beyond the lobbyists and corporate interests that play at the legislative level in both parties but favor Republicans. This is supposed to be a results based business but has been anything but over the course of the last decade with the Democrats in Florida – decisions on targeting races, hiring staff, contracting vendors, etc have been based less on merit and results and more on personalities and often on factionalism within the party. I’ve written it before but it bears repeating that The FDP has long shared the internal behavior of collapsing businesses, declining empires or nation-states as well as losing sports teams in that decisions are often made based more personality, sentiment and factionalism than on competence, accomplishment and merit.
Whomever assumes control of the Florida Democratic Party is going to inherit a wounded animal – one whose infrastructure and effectiveness has long since waned. Florida Democrats have lost 17 of the last 20 statewide races and 17 of the last 18 statewide cabinet races – a record which is comparable to that of deep red states in the interior of the country. The new chair will also inherit a party with a progressive wing that does not trust the establishment, and an insider clique largely based in Tallahassee who routinely does lobbying business with Republicans despite representing themselves at election time as dyed-in-the-wool Democrats.
The party is cracked, even fractured. But with new leadership, a fresh vision and a willingness to engage all stakeholders the rebuild can commence. For the sake of democracy, Florida needs a vibrant two-party system at the legislative and state government levels, and the Democrats have failed to give Floridians that option for years on now. It’s time to start rebuilding, and that begins with restructuring and rethinking how legislative races are targeted and won.