Florida's Democratic Party Is a Joke, but Who Is the Punchline: Its Leaders or Voters?
For four years, Florida Democrats giggled with glee at every Rick Scott failure. They practically drooled with expectation as Scott's approval ratings sunk further than a boat in the Bermuda Triangle. They thought there was no way they could lose to this guy again, but last night they did, and Charlie Crist actually did slightly worse than Alex Sink had four years earlier.
Not only did they lose the governor's mansion for a fifth election in a row, but they also lost every single cabinet race, failed to make a dent in the state Senate, and lost enough seats in the state House for Republicans to claim a super-majority.
Last night wasn't just a minor embarrassment for the party, but another massacre. Even more so when you consider Barack Obama won here twice, Florida has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and independents tend to tilt ever so slightly to the left.
Former lobbyist Allison Tant became the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party in 2013 after she was handpicked and shoehorned into the race by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Bill Nelson. She beat out Alan Clendenin but didn't seem concerned about division in the party.
"After the [party chair] election we'll get back together. Rick Scott is a great unifier," she told the Huffington Post at the time.
It's not hard to find examples of Florida Democratic bigwigs claiming the 2014 election would be in the bag simply because Scott was so unpopular.
"Rick Scott will be a greater unifier than we've witnessed in many years," Broward County Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar told the Tampa Bay Times in April. (In fact, just Google "Mitch Ceaser" and "Unifier" to find how often he, in particular, repeated that sentiment for the past two years.)
"He's our number one supporter. What would we do without him?'' Ron Mills, president of the Dolphin Democrats Club of South Florida, joked in 2011. "You see the energy here? That's thanks to Rick Scott. We didn't have that in 2010." In that same story, Alison Burke Morano, a Pasco County former vice chairwoman of the state party, said Scott was, "a huge motivator for Democrats across the state.''
Democratic leaders thought all they had to do was not be Rick Scott, and they believed it ... for four years.
So They Ran ... Literally Someone Who Wasn't Rick Scott and Put All Their Eggs in Charlie Crist's Basket
Did the Democrats spend the next four years grooming potential candidates for governor and other positions to run in 2014? No, they sat around for Republican-leftover Charlie Crist to decide to run. Nan Rich, a former Senate Minority Leader with years of experience and Democratic value bona fides, was purposefully frozen out of the discussion. Democrats didn't even bother to host a primary debate, and powerful donors paid little mind to Rich.
Not only that, but Democrats failed to recruit viable candidate for any cabinet positions.
Attorney general candidate George Sheldon might have been their best shot, but he hadn't held office since 1982! The party also failed to turn the attorney general's race into a referendum on gay marriage, despite the fact Sheldon would have stopped fighting to keep Florida's ban and Pam Bondi has been in the news for months now for doing just that. It might not have been a winning plan for Sheldon, but it could have increased overall Democratic voter turnout and enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, CFO candidate Will Rankin and agriculture commissioner candidate Thad Hamilton were political nobodies who had never run for office before.
Still, even if they had won every single Senate race where a Democrat was on the ballot they still wouldn't have won control of the legislative body simply because the party didn't even bother to run candidates in several districts.
Their card was top heavy, relying on a former Republican. Rick Scott was supposed to be the "great unifier" of the Democrats, but the party didn't even run enough candidates to take control of the Florida's government. That adds up. An exciting young Senate or House candidate here or there, or an AgCom commissioner touring the state could have increased overall Democratic turnout. How does the party expect their voters to turn up when they barely gave them a reason to?
Then Again, Democratic Voters Set the Stage For All of This in the 2010 Senate Race
What happened to Kendrick Meek in 2010 was a shame. Was he slam-dunk candidate? No. Was he the best the party had to offer at the time? Yes. He made a name for himself by winning battles with Gov. Jeb Bush over education in Tallahassee, went on to the U.S. House to sit on the powerful Ways and Means committee, and was a leader of Nancy Pelosi's 30-Something Working Group.
Though he had support in D.C., Florida party leaders never really embraced Meek's campaign. As soon as Charlie Crist announced he would run as an independent, Florida Democratic leaders pretty much stopped pretending to support their candidate.
But Democratic voters tacitly endorsed this strategy. Only 47 percent voted for Meek in the general election, while 44 percent voted for Crist, despite the fact that neither actually had a shot of beating Marco Rubio. Voters sent the message, "We don't care what our candidates actually stand for, just as long as they're not scary Tea Partiers."
The Strange Case of South Florida Voter Turnout
Democrats cannot win a statewide election in Florida unless voter turnout is strong in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Yesterday, it was pathetic. Anyone familiar with local election turnout shouldn't be surprised.
However, then South Floridians complain about Tallahassee and decide to embrace stunts like dividing the state into two.
And it's hard for state party leaders to figure out what exactly South Florida Democrats actually want out of their politicians when they hardly go to the polls anyway.
Not that the rest of the state's Democrats treat South Florida as anything more than an inconvenient truth.
Crist was the fourth Democratic gubernatorial candidate in a row from the Tampa Bay area. All of them lost. The last time Democrats ran a candidate for governor from South Florida was Bob Graham, who, of course, won and was first elected in 1979. Meanwhile, South Florida candidates like Rich and Meek ended up getting ignored by the state party. It does appear that Democratic voters in the rest of the state don't seem to embrace South Florida candidates, despite Republicans having no such problem (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio).
Yes, some will point to Crist's odd choice of running mate, Miami's Annette Taddeo, but she had never actually won election down here.
But the problem gets to the larger point: Are Florida's Democratic voters just apathetic beyond belief when it comes to state elections or have party leaders failed miserably in revving up the base? Or is it just a feedback loop Florida is doomed to be stuck in.
So What's the Solution
It seems presenting an actual Democratic vision for Florida might help, instead of the losing model of "Hey, we're not Republicans" the party has been using over the past several election cycles.
Grooming a bench of potential statewide candidates should be a priority. Last night, Gwen Graham, Bob Graham's daughter, won a surprising victory in a Tallahassee-area House district. Patrick Murphy, a 31-year-old originally from Miami, convincingly held on to his Republican-leaning, Palm Beach-area district. There's a handful of mayors: Jacksonville's Alvin Brown, Tampa's Bob Buckhorn, for example, but beyond that the party's bench is weak. Chairwoman Tant says she has a ten-year plan to improve that, but that Democrats didn't even bother to run viable candidates in so many races makes you wonder what exactly that plan is. (Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush had both lost statewide races before being elected governor.)
Of course, democracy is a two-way street, and Democratic voters could go a long way in helping their party find its footing by, you know, bothering to show up to the polls in elections that aren't for president.