After the 2014 elections a narrative was churned out that Democrats could have won the statewide election by focusing on the I-10 corridor. I countered on these pages claiming the I-75 corridor was more important, something I continue to believe as Democratic fortunes in statewide races have continued to underwhelm. However, little or no time has been spent thinking about the party’s fortunes along the I-95 corridor north of Palm Beach County and how it could tilt statewide elections away from the Republicans.
Martin and Indian River Counties are Republican bastions. However, conservation and environmental issues are disproportionately important in these counties. Martin County has always been environmentally conscious – the late Nat Reed, a Republican whose impact on preserving south Florida’s ecosystem was arguably unmatched thanks to his influence with the likes of Claude Kirk and Richard Nixon hailed from Martin County. It was a county which prevented the building of I-95 through it for 14 years due to environmental concerns while still backing Republican candidates for legislature and local office. But today’s Republicans aren’t the GOP officeholders of the 1970’s and 1980’s who mixed social conservatism with a genuine care for the ecosystem, giving the Democrats a chance perhaps to soften the gaudy margins Republican candidates typically take from here. The algae bloom in the St Lucie River gave the Democrats a great opportunity here to define the differences between the parties but it was an opportunity missed.
Democrats have done well in St Lucie County outside of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance (it should be noted though St Lucie was the only county in the state Patrick Murphy won in his US Senate bid that Clinton lost). In fact, Charlie Crist carried the county by nearly ten points in 2014, Barack Obama racked up nice margins twice and Andrew Gillum won St Lucie in 2018.
The mix of people in St Lucie, with a higher than average percentage of African-Americans and Latinos for an exurban county makes its voting preferences distinctly different from places like Pasco, Marion and Clay which might otherwise be seen as similarly-styled locales. St Lucie’s demographics are not that different than fast-growing Lee County on the Gulf Coast, but unlike Lee there is a base of white voters for the Democrats – largely transplants from the Northeast or people who moved north from Broward and Palm Beach Counties.
Indian River County has in the past shown a smallish activist base for liberal candidates in Democratic primaries which hasn’t translated to increased success for the party in general elections. Like Martin, environmental issues particularly the Indian River Lagoon are of paramount importance here.
Further north in Brevard County, Democrats have failed to take advantage of shifting demographics in the southern part of the county. These areas are ever so slowly becoming more Latino and attracting some younger professional types from the north. However, most of the county from about Viera north is continuing its thirty year shift towards the GOP. Those areas seem long gone, though eventually spillage from Eastern Orange County could impact voting behavior – but we are still several cycles off from that.
Volusia County provides the biggest concern. A county that solidly supported Democratic presidential nominees between 1992 and 2008, it’s shifted dramatically toward the GOP since. Why? The Democrats have become less palatable with working class whites and non-Latino Catholic voters. We previously called these voters “ethnic” but in the era of identity politics where “ethnic” means persons of color, white catholic voters have been lobbed into a larger bucket of white or even evangelical voters by many progressives – a fatal mistake which may have well cost the party the 2016 election in Florida (as well as in Pennsylvania and Ohio which like Florida had backed Barack Obama twice and then swung heavily away from the Democrats).
Flagler County went from backing Barack Obama in 2008 to a twenty point margin GOP county in 2016. The county’s growth largely among middle class white seniors from the Northeast and Midwest at one time lent itself to competitive elections but now reflect the national trend toward the GOP. How the Democrats reverse this is will be tied more to the national party than anything done locally or on the state level. St Johns County presents similar hurdles as growing areas like Nocatee tend to lean strongly to the GOP and as the county grows, so do GOP margins.
In 2018, Andrew Gillum became the first Democrat running for Governor or President to win Duval County since 1982. Like most urban centers in this era, Jacksonville is swinging toward the Democrats. Continuing to grow margins. Working and turning out the African-American community in Jacksonville could prove to be the difference between winning and losing statewide.
Nassau County’s recent growth has been bad news for Democrats, but with under 100,000 residents, the overwhelmingly Republican area doesn’t make a huge difference in statewide elections.