The Florida Democratic Party Is a Damn Disgrace

There are a hell of a lot of Democrats in Florida. In fact, more of them are registered here than Republicans. Obama won the state twice. And the blue party has demographics on its side thanks to a growing, left-leaning Hispanic population.

So why is the Florida Democratic Party still such a damn disgrace? In 2014, losing the governorship to widely despised Rick Scott felt like an embarrassing nadir, but it turns out Sunshine State Dems were just teetering on the edge of the real abyss. This past Tuesday night, they dove right in.

Donald Trump won the state by almost 120,000 votes. Marco Rubio clobbered Patrick Murphy. All the incumbent GOP U.S. House reps in Miami kept their seats. And despite the Florida Supreme Court un-gerrymandering several Senate districts, the Dems made almost no gains in Tallahassee. They picked up a single Senate seat and two measly House seats, still leaving them far from any kind of real influence.

The Dems were so damn weak-sauce they couldn't even make a dent in their own strongest districts. As Jim DeFede points out, Hillary Clinton won the 27th Congressional District by 20 points. Yet incumbent GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen beat her Democratic challenger, newcomer Scott Furhman, by ten points among those same exact voters.

(Update: As several astute observers have pointed out, Fuhrman's result is actually the closest a Dem has come to knocking off Ros-Lehtinen. A better example might be Joe Garcia, a previously elected Congressman with DCCC support who was crushed by Carlos Curbelo.)

There's already a bloodletting inside the party. Today state party chair Allison Tant announced she won't seek reelection in January. The Tally-based operative leaves after three years of basically complete failure.

So how exactly can a party with so many voters have such a godawful record of winning anything?

Ask party insiders, and they'll say there's plenty of blame to go around this time. Top-of-the-ticket candidates were lacking yet again. Murphy turned out to be a resumé-fudging lightweight with little shot at taking out Rubio. The newbies taking on established reps such as Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo all flopped.

Party leaders also point to Trump's unexpected surge — not to mention apathy for Clinton — to explain how guys like former Sen. Rod Smith could lose a redrawn North Florida district that seemed far more Democrat-friendly.

"If I was able to net one after Donald Trump won the state, then I think we were at least able to stop the tide," Sen. Oscar Braynon, the Senate minority leader from Miami Gardens, told reporters.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, the progressive head of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, lost his seat to former Rep. Frank Artiles, a hard-line conservative who tried to foist a North Carolina-style transgender bill on Florida last year. (Bullard's district was also redrawn, to be fair, making it far GOP-heavier.)

Bullard — to his credit — places the blame not on Trump's surge or weak candidates, but on a more fundamental flaw: The Democrats have no message in Florida.  

"There needs to be a real shakeup internally from top down, bottom up, and I say that as a local party chair," Bullard tells New Times. "At the end of the day, there needs to be a more deliberate game plan on the message."

Bullard points to Michael Moore's viral post demanding a national change in the party to actually make voters' lives better.

"That's where we've gotten lost," Bullard says. "We've lost our focus on people."

What's depressing is how predictable this problem was. Here's what New Times wrote after Charlie Crist lost to Rick Scott two years ago:
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.
The other problems so evident in 2014 are also still there, including a real need for fresh statewide candidates.

There are a few reasons to hope. Miami's own Jose Javier Rodriguez, for instance, unseated political heavyweight Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in a rare bit of good news for state Dems. Rodriguez has a compelling backstory of graduating from Harvard and coming back to make Miami a better place. Elsewhere, young stars such as Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum could make a dent statewide.

But first, Florida Dems have to decide who they are. Their voters are still waiting.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink