Florida Democrats are hoping to ride a “blue wave” Tuesday in order to reverse a quarter century of history in this state. As our latest exclusive modeling shows, this is closer reality than a week or two ago. The Democrats almost certainly will end a statewide office losing streak where the party has won only 5% of races for Governor and Cabinet since 2000. Additionally, the party looks to have its best year in terms of picking up legislative seats at a minimum since 2006 but maybe even since 1982.
The Republicans were able to use wave elections in 1994, 2002 and 2004 to bolster their numbers throughout Florida as well as a Florida Tsunami (against the tide of the rest of the nation and actually more dramatic than the “wave” elections) in 1998. But it wasn’t what happened election night in any of those years as much as what happened AFTER the elections.
Today’s Trump-oriented GOP doesn’t represent at all the sort of big tent, multi-layered party Florida Republicans built after 1995, largely under the direction of two very talented RPOF Chairmen, Tom Slade and Al Cardenas. The RPOF has also lost its way since about 2010, but that’s not the subject for today – it is what the GOP did between 1995 and 2010 and how the Democrats can learn from it.
Slade and Cardenas develop the playbook and the GOP dominates Florida for two decades
Under Slade who was one of the most influential people in Florida politics the last half century, the GOP surged creating the climate Floridians live in today. The lasting and permanent Republican majorities in the state of Florida were built largely by him and Carednas after him, with their deputies implementing his vision and understanding his view of candidate recruitment and positive messaging.
Under Slade, the Republicans went from a permanent minority made up largely of country club types and migrants from the Midwest, to a party that represented people of all stripes and all regions in Florida. Then Cardenas’ took it even further, solidifying statewide majorities at the county and municipal levels when the Democrats repeatedly rejected the idea of building infrastructure outside of state race.
The Democrats have yet to truly recover from Slade and Cardenas’ mastery of the game, though since 2011 have shown more interest in local races, albeit only in certain “winnable” urban areas.
The ineptitude of the Republican Party of Florida in the period from 1970 to 1986 was similar to how the Democrats in the state operated from 1998 to very recently. Small cliques controlled the party and meritorious advancement was often stifled for cronyism. The GOP faltered badly after appearing poised to gain control of the state in the late 1960’s.
One of Slade and Cardenas’ great acts were to move heaven and earth to make Democratic legislators as well as local elected officials feel comfortable if they worked with the GOP. This led to an eventual mass exodus of elected Democrats toward the GOP. While it’s simple in retrospect for young people or those with an agenda the attribute party switching in Florida in the late 1990’s and 2000’s strictly to ideology (and in many cases, mind-numbingly to race) other factors were most certainly at play.
Most important in terms of factors for party switching in that era were personal comfort and competence, because the GOP stressed merit while the Democrats of that era in Florida were a party built around cronyism, yesteryear and a degree of victimization. Electoral prospects certainly mattered as did ideology, but in many cases it was the arrogance of the Democrats that made the job of Slade and his deputies easier.
Slade was so successful in building Florida’s party into a bigger tent than the national version of the GOP, that he was courted by those seeking more inclusion to run the RPOF. Later Cardenas was made President of the American Conservative Union (ACU), previously a niche group that agitated in Congress (but published useful ratings every year) and put talking heads on national programs. Cardenas like his Florida playbook of reaching down to local governments, moved the ACU toward more emphasis on state legislatures and the group is arguably more influential than ever.
In this era, despite a likely statewide electoral triumph, The base of the Democratic Party has been reduced to urban counties in southeast Florida and around Orlando in addition to college campuses around the state and heavily African-American influenced rural Gadsden County. In terms of geography it would be almost impossible to cover less ground in this state than the Democrats currently. While it appears Tuesday’s results likely reverse a bad trend in Pinellas County and will further move Duval and Seminole counties towards the Democrats, little is changing outside urban areas.
Democrats and the party of individual personality
In recent years, the Democrats and professional left in Florida have made networking more about personality and less about capability. They’ve played the politics of personality and personal destruction like a zero sum game. Maintaining the allure of power and influence at all costs meant disposing of inconvenient allies, those with independent thought and perhaps even those who might allege illegality or improper behavior, both ethical and personal.
Democrats in Florida have been less concerned about accountability for electoral failures and more worried about keeping dissidents at bay. In many cases professional leftists/Democrats continue to feed at the trough of a political process which is awash in cash and opportunities for graft.
Following Tuesday’s election, the Democrats are likely to control the Governorship, one or more Cabinet seats and have increased numbers in the legislature. With this comes increased influence but also an increased responsibility for a party dominated by players whose politics are driven far more personality than actual ideology.
We’ve seen some success for Democrats getting GOP officials comfortable with the party. In my hometown of Coral Springs, a promising young City Commissioner Dan Daley switched parties after working closely with Mayor Skip Campbell and other local Democrats. The decision of former Congressman David Jolly, not long ago thought of as a prospective statewide candidate for the GOP to become an NPA also is notable.
It’s important the Democrats study Slade and Cardenas as well as understand with electoral success comes consequences – either mature into responsible leaders or expect to be turned out one way or another in future. Build your infrastructure locally and let bygones be bygones, or pay the price in the future.
The playbook for success between elections has been written by the GOP. Will the Democrats read it and act accordingly? It’s up to us to try and ensure that they do.