Stephen Bittel has been elected Chairman of the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) in a decisive vote of the State Executive Committee. Bittel was a popular choice among establishment figures but raises lots of red flags among the activist base of the party and those who would like to see control of the party wrestled away from southeast Florida money interests. However, those interests don’t always play in state legislative races so a silver lining might appear on the horizon in Bittel’s victory – will the new Chair be able to get his monied allies to put more money into the state party’s legislative campaign accounts?
Democrats have under-performed terribly in legislative races over the last two decades. While during period from 2002 to 2010 much of the failure could be pinned squarely on GOP-drawn Republican gerrymandered districts since 2012 the defeats have been inexplicable considering the number of districts Democrats have carried at the top of the ticket in the last few cycles that have elected Republicans to the State House and State Senate. The advent of Fair Districts and subsequent court cases have left the Democrats with accessible (albeit not favorable) legislative maps. But in 2014 the Democrats won only 39 State House seats while party Gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist was carrying 55 seats and in 2016 the Democrats won just 15 State Senate seats while Hillary Clinton came a few hundred votes from a 20-20 split. A big part of the problem has been a lack of resources for legislative races and the forced choices staff has had to make between good candidates in various races. Other problems such as candidate recruitment, targeting of races, poor strategic decisions based on non-monetary factors and others we will save for another discussion.
Bittel’s promises of more money to flow into the Florida Democratic Party seem familiar since every recent winner of FDP Chair’s elections have touted the fundraising prowess they allegedly bring to the job. Bittel’s fundraising success in the past has been based around the national party and high-profile rock-star type national candidates. Can he translate this into the heavy lifting and tough sell related to funding legislative races, where the Democrats sit in a nearly super-minority status?
If the new Chairman makes one tangible change that helps Democrats in this state lift our way out of the mess the party is currently in, it would be to find new alternate funding sources for legislative races. The party has in the last decade been too dependent on insider-oriented corporate interests that give more money to Republicans than Democrats to make a go at trying to pick up more seats in the legislature. The failure to convince those outside the Tallahassee bubble the relevance and importance of funding legislative campaigns has been a collective failure not only of Democrats in Florida but of national Democrats who have allowed the party’s bench and effectiveness at the state and local levels to fall to record lows. This is part of a larger national problem for sure but we need a Florida solution.
The infrastructure and effectiveness of the party 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 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.
The new Chairman was elected in divisive race that doubled-down on the type of tribalism and personality-based politics we’ve come to expect from the FDP. But if he can change the culture around funding legislative races he would have been successful on one very critical score.